When it comes to South Africa’s player exodus, the horse (or is it now the lion?) has bolted. And it has gathered pace after SA Rugby ditched the 30-cap overseas selection rule.
Local fans may consider starting a #StopSaffersLeaving movement, or marching to Saru’s Plattekloof headquarters, but professional rugby players are, like footballers, chasing a pay check from whichever UK, French or Japanese club offers them the most zeroes.
And it’s time we accept this trend as a positive. South Africans playing and coaching in Europe, where they gather valuable insights on foreign opponents while honing their craft, can benefit the Boks.
Up north, forwards are the rockstars as they truck up the ball with force in heavy weather, an ideal environment for “flair” SA loosies who need to cultivate a hard edge. Saffer pivots and playmakers, like Wasps-based magician Willie le Roux, come to learn that a crafty boot, not a sniping run or silky pass, can often do the most damage, driving play further with each possession to keep the opposition on the back foot.
Pocket dynamos Cheslin Kolbe and Gio Aplon have caused havoc in France, but skillful big men among the backs – like new Bok bruiser, Andre Esterhuizen – are favoured as they’re just as capable of punching holes in defences with ball-in-hand as the forwards.
The likes of English champions Saracens and Pro 14 winners Leinster are professionally run, and spare no expense bringing in the best tactical experts and strength-and-conditioning gurus to produce smarter, stronger players.
Ja nee, it seems a week doesn’t go by without Gloucester coach Johan Ackermann signing one of his former Lions charges, and it’s got to the point where the Premiership club has even changed the team badge to mirror the Lions’ emblem. A coincidence, surely?
So far, Ackermann has convinced the Springbok trio of prop Ruan Dreyer, flank Jaco Kriel and lock Franco Mostert, as well as Sharks hooker Franco Marais, to join him and son Ruan in England for the 2018/19 season. Western Province academy flyhalf Dom Coetzer has also joined Gloucester’s youth set-up.
Former Lions president Louis Luyt must be turning in his grave as his beloved union is pillaged of its prized predators. What’s stopping Ackermann from going after Bok outcasts Ruan Combrinck and Rohan Janse van Rensburg next?
Another former Lions livewire and the Sale Sharks Player of 2017/18, Faf de Klerk will make his first Test appearance since 2016 when he lines up against England at Ellis Park on Saturday.
According to De Klerk, he’s tweaked his tactical kicking in the “Test rugby” conditions of the northern hemisphere, and is now a more complete scrumhalf – one better suited to implementing Bok coach Rassie Erasmus’ preferred kick-chase blueprint than debutant Ivan van Zyl in SA’s 22-20 defeat against Wales in the US.
Ackermann, considered by many as a Bok-coach-in-waiting, has surrounded himself with familiar faces at Gloucester, so as best to establish a solid base to work from and succeed abroad. Erasmus similarly recruited his former Stormers defence expert Jacques Nienaber, and WP centre Jaco Taute and lock Jean Kleyn, during his successful stint at Munster.
At Kingsholm Stadium, Ackermann will oversee the 18-capped Mostert’s progression as a lock/blindside flank, while encouraging Kriel as the former Lions skipper recovers from shoulder surgery. Aged 27, Dreyer is still honing his craft as a front-row grunter and the tighthead has plenty to offer SA rugby if he rediscovers his best form under Ackermann at Gloucester.
Ruan Ackermann, the uncapped No 8 who is keen to play for England and qualifies on residency in August 2020, has impressed for the Cherry and Whites. But one call from Rassie offering the 22-year-old a Bok jersey and who knows…
The pain of the player drain is felt by SA’s Super Rugby teams in teams light on experience. However, there are key learnings to be gained from having a pride of hungry lions on the hunt in Gloucestershire, taking their cues from a trusted leader.
Devin Hermanus works in the SA media industry, wears sunglasses on his forehead, buys chocolate milkshake in bulk, and is one more fuel hike away from hitchhiking. Follow him on Twitter: @DevinMyles11