The only way we’re going to be able to keep our best players in South Africa in the future is to pick a Springbok squad in June that’s made up predominantly of players currently based overseas.
I’m not trying to give you a headache with what sounds like a riddle, but this is the reality of the migraine that SA Rugby has got at the moment.
Whenever I’ve been asked, in the years following my time coaching the Boks, about picking overseas-based players, I’ve always been adamantly against it. I haven’t changed my stance.
But the problem is, when you have almost every top player leaving the country, then you get to a tipping point where you have to pick those players.
After the 2011 Rugby World Cup, if we’d stuck to the regulation that, in order to play for South Africa, you have to play your rugby there, I believe that many players wouldn’t have left. But we allowed them to be picked and that made it easy for them to leave.
Jan Serfontein is the latest player to sign up for a move to Europe. In 2012, he was rated as the best in the world in his age group. This is a guy who grew up playing rugby at Grey College, played provincial rugby from young, and aspired every day to be a Springbok. And now, at the age of 24, he’s decided to leave South Africa and go play overseas.
If you consider that in context, we’ve obviously missed something as a rugby nation. But you can’t blame the players because they’re allowed to go play overseas and still play for South Africa at the next World Cup. Serfontein isn’t losing out on anything by going overseas so how can anyone get upset with the guy when he can have his cake and eat it?
And that’s what is sad – as much as we want to say you can’t have your cake and eat it, we’ve created a situation where that’s exactly what our players can do, and we’re now forced to give it to them.
It feels like SA Rugby is in a spiral because we’ve put ourselves in a position where an Overseas SA XV would probably beat the Boks every time, so there’s no way we can afford not to pick the best overseas players now.
That’s one of the things that New Zealand got right, and I’m envious of the way they made the All Blacks jersey priceless.
Do you think they didn’t need Carl Hayman back in 2007 when he moved to Newcastle, or Nick Evans, when the All Blacks lost a number of flyhalves leading up to the 2011 World Cup final? But the reality was that they made their rules about eligibility and they were strict on it.
Likewise, the Bok jersey should be worth a lot more than any money you get overseas; playing for your country should be priceless. The jersey must mean something and the only way to get that value back is to win.
Last year, we lost eight out of 12 Tests which means it’s conceivable that there are now guys who have played Test rugby for South Africa and have never won.
Do you think any player wants to stay involved with a team when they’re not winning? That’s not the nature of sport or sportsmen.
So the only way to fix that is to win. To do that, you have to pick the best players, and most of our best players are based overseas.
Unless you start winning, and make people feel special about wearing that Bok jersey, and make people feel good about watching them play, and make sponsors feel good about being associated with that brand, you’re never going to have the leverage to keep your best players in the country.
That famous photograph of Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela holding the Webb Ellis Cup together is such a compelling image because the Boks won the 1995 World Cup.
If they were standing there with runners-up medals, most supporters probably wouldn’t remember the picture.
When that winning feeling comes back, and everyone feels like this is a special group again, then guys will want to stay in that group. That’s how you create the priceless jersey.