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