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England must follow South Africa's lead to achieve any success again

By Daniel Gallan
South Africa versus England/ PA

It’s fair to say that English rugby has seen better days. The now ring-fenced Premiership has been reduced to just 10 teams after three historic clubs went to the wall last season. Community clubs across the land have seen their participation numbers decline in recent years. And last week, the men’s national team captain, Owen Farrell, announced that he was taking a step back from the international game to prioritise his mental health after copping vociferous boos from his own fans.


The mood music took on the cheer of a Radiohead gig in a blizzard on Sunday when Newcastle Falcons head coach, Alex Codling, spelled out the dire state of his club’s future. “It’s like a boxer,” he said after an eighth straight loss amid potential financial ruin. “There are only so many punches you can take.”

This situation is not wholly without precedent. And if disheartened English fans are looking for a modicum of hope they can look across the globe at the nation that has effectively bullied them these past four years.

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Stormers coach John Dobson on selections for opening round of European Cup competition

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Stormers coach John Dobson on selections for opening round of European Cup competition

South Africa’s Springboks might have four Webb Ellis Cups locked away in the vault, but there was a time when the state of the game was a mess. The Super Rugby franchises continued to get stuffed by their Australian and New Zealand counterparts and the national team wasn’t exactly pulling up trees either.

Between November 2016 and August 2018, historically crushing defeats to Italy (20-18), New Zealand (57-0) and Argentina (32-19) pointed to a general malaise. Allister Coetzee was given the boot and Rassie Erasmus was elected head coach. Wholesale changes were made but one alteration in particular set South African rugby on a new course.


A new selection policy was adopted. Rather than place a 30-Test cap quota on foreign based players, which was itself a shift from a zero tolerance regarding those plying their trade abroad, Erasmus rolled out the welcome mat for anyone with a South African passport. As long as they weren’t already involved with another national team, they were eligible to represent the Springboks.

“People say South Africa is stupid for allowing our players to leave. Is it stupid? Look at England, there are six or seven South African players taking the places of young English players at Premiership clubs,” Erasmus wrote in a Daily Mail column last year.


“For us, it’s wonderful. Among about 32 players we are looking at, they’re probably earning 400-million rand that doesn’t have to come off our accounts. Meanwhile, back in South Africa, we have the next South African lock coming through because there is no financial incentive for players to come here.

“Is it good for England that Faf de Klerk is starting ahead of Raffi Quirke at Sale? No. Is it good for South Africa? Yes, it works for us.”

Indeed. At the 2019 World Cup, which South Africa won after beating England 32-12 in the final, nine members of the victorious squad were based overseas. This year that number jumped to 15.

In order to save their sport, the RFU must follow suit. As it stands, only certain players granted a pass under “exceptional circumstances” can both represent England and a club outside of the Premiership. Jack Willis was allowed this special dispensation as he made an unplanned switch to Toulouse after Wasps went belly up. But a complete loosening of the reins is the only way to keep the circus rolling.


Not only would it alleviate some of the financial pressures of the RFU but allow the governing body to support some of its clubs on the margins. Having lost Wasps, Worcester Warriors and London Irish last season, it can ill afford to see another team go. Newcastle clearly need help and should be a priority rather than supplementing the large wages of marquee players.

That point is pertinent in light of suggestions that Maro Itoje could be on his way to France in order to avoid a 50% salary cut if he wants to stay on at Saracens. There has been talk that the RFU could help the Premiership champions keep their star lock, but that would be a poor allocation of scarce resources. Rather allow Itoje to cross the Channel – just as Henry Arundell, Joe Marchant, David Ribbans have – and allow Steve Borthwick the freedom to pick him whenever he wants.

There is a counterargument that is worth consideration. If the Premiership loses its best players then it stands to reason that the overall product might be diminished. After all, it’s the actors, more than the stage or director, that makes the production what it is. Without household names there is the risk of alienation and waning interest from supporters.

But that is a risk worth taking in order to secure the bottom line and ensure the future of English rugby. Besides, there are positives that should instead be our focus.

As is clear from South African rugby, a mini exodus creates opportunities for those who might otherwise have bumped their heads against a glass ceiling. Now with only 10 clubs in the English top flight, a bottleneck will soon squeeze out any late bloomers unless there is a release elsewhere.

This cross pollination of ideas can only be advantageous to a coach looking for a sliver of intel that might advance his cause. How might Borthwick’s line-out strategies shift after Itoje spends two seasons in France? Maybe there’s something to be gained from Marcus Smith pulling strings at a Super Rugby side or sending a front rower to South Africa for some hard graft on the Highveld.

If England wants to compete for higher honours again those running the show must follow the lead set by the double world champions. Scrap the parochialism and short sightedness. This naval gazing attitude might have made sense in the pre-professional era, but in a global rugby village it smacks of stubbornness and arrogance.



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Adam 194 days ago

The irfu only gave one Irish player license to play abroad ever. but if you look at all irish teams right now we are only allowed 3 foreign players in one position each under our rulebook. But maybe the rfu want to look at a rule similar if they don’t want to go into financial ruin they have to redevelop their grass roots policy which is how the IRFU developed their system. And Ireland have a great rugby school system.

Jmann 217 days ago

What - they must hope to be favorably officiated in major games? Why not just ban foreign born players from your premiership?

Awie 218 days ago

I think Daniel’s missing a massive caveat: For the SA’n system to work, you have to have the SA’n schools player production line. No one else does.

Steve 219 days ago

Farrell copped abuse from his own fans, which was fueled by the media every time he makes a mistake they’re all over him practically begging for fans to agree with them and abuse him!
I agree that players should be allowed to play overseas and still play for England though, apart from getting big money players off the clubs books it will allow younger players more game time and give new experiences to the ones that leave, look at those who went to Toulon around the 2010s, they all improved and played some of their best rugby while there.

Jon 220 days ago

ENG copying the RSA playbook won’t work…the weather is different, the feeder schools are different and copying another country is bound for failure. Might as well try to out-AllBlack the AllBlacks…

Trevor 220 days ago

If you factor in the skills gap, the coaching finese (SA, we’recrap = Billy V, et al), the sa directors initiatives, the attacking and defensive nous, and especially the pride and commitment of all of sa backing the national team, the No, it won’t work ever. Old Bill(s), premiership club self- serving attitudes and selection impotence severely restrict our game.

steve 220 days ago

I honestly believe that english clubs need to be included in the URC. the 4 top sides go up with premiership and championship divisions being combined.

Poorfour 220 days ago

I think the article fails to understand the different dynamics between the countries.

South African players leave the country because they can earn more in any of the major European leagues, and SARU doesn’t have the money or control to stop them. The situation is different in England.

When English Qualified Players stop playing in England, they tend to go to France. Some older ones go to the US or Japan for a final payday in a less demanding competition, but the ones who are looking to maximise their earning power go to France, because it’s the only market in the game that pays more.

The Top 14 is one of the most physically attritional leagues around, with a heavy emphasis on forward power and a very long league season. Players are hired to play, and contracts don’t usually include clauses allowing players to join up for International camps outside the International windows, or to have the RFU have a say over their training. The one famous exception was Jonny Wilkinson, but few other players have his buying power.

I do think the RFU should be more flexible about players displaced by the club failures last year, and even for Joe Marchant, who moved because Eddie wasn’t selecting him only for Eddie to be replaced… But it needs to be a temporary measure while things settle down.

I would place more of a focus on the RFU’s planned hybrid contracts, which will allow them longer term control over a core group of players.

I also think they should look how to help develop emerging players who could fill problem positions or holes in the succession plan. Investment in the academies, and perhaps (cheaper) hybrid contracts for high potential players in positions where the succession plan is weaker would help.

Nigel 220 days ago

Not sure how the author thinks England will take over as WR's protected team as Europe is well represented in the WR stable. WR desperately need a team from Africa to give them credibility as a world governing body so back in 1994 with SA's readmission they (then the IRB) issued their mandate to their officials to ensure appeared competitive when clearly they weren’t and haven’t been since. Hardly rocket science.

Colin 220 days ago

Erasmus is correct the Premiership is full of players not eligible to play for England. The Leicesters and Sacarcens of this world get go forward from southern hemisphere players not English players who follow rather than lead. We pay to train Welsh and Scots players. How stupid.

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