The MLR franchise hoovering up South African schoolboy talent
Major League Rugby’s Houston SaberCats are increasingly turning to South African talent to fill their roster – and it’s all thanks to their heavy-hitting director of rugby.
Springbok coaching royalty Heyneke Meyer was unveiled as the franchise’s new DoR last year and it’s fair to say there’s more than a little hint of a South African lilt to the side. Placed fifth in the MLR, Meyer’s is a team that has come to rely heavily on recruits from the 54-year-old’s native lands.
A quick glance over their squad list would make most Gallagher Premiership DoRs blush, such is the reliance on the Rainbow Nation. There’s more ‘vans’ than a DHL depot.
Familiar faces like Willie Britz rub shoulders alongside players like Dillon Smit, Jaco Bezuidenhout, Gerrie Labuschagne, Wynand Grassmann, Marcell Muller, Louritz Van Der Schyff, Frikkie De Beer and Dean Muir.
Maybe most interesting is the development of Kian Meadon, Gideon van Wyk and David Coetzer, who are all in their early 20s and were highly rated products of the SA schools system. They’re a calibre of player that one would normally expect to pick up a contract with a South African franchise and stay in the domestic system, or potentially become project players in Europe.
Instead, they’re heading to rugby’s new frontier.
The SaberCats signing of Springboks U20s star 20-year-old Meadon, who went on a brief loan to Rugby ATL in March, is intriguing.
Meadon began his provincial age-grade rugby career with Western Province and played for the Sharks in the 2021 national U20 Cup. A product of the famed Paarl Boys High School program, he rose to prominence with South Africa Schools team in 2019 before playing for Baby Boks in 2021.
Around the same time Meyer also signed fellow flyhalf David Coetzer, who has a similar impressive junior rugby resume to Meadon.
Coetzer had progressed through the Blue Bulls’ age-group program. In 2020, he led the Pretorians U21 team to a national title. He won the famous Varsity Cup last year with the University of Pretoria Tuks, where he played alongside another SaberCats recruit, Jaco Bezuidenhout.
No.8 Van Wyk, a product of Menlopark High School and latterly Paarl Boys High school also catches the eye as a young South African talent that one might have expected to have stayed within the SA system.
He repped South Africa at U18s level and the University of Free State, before winning caps for the Cheetahs. At 6’3 and 103kg, the native of Lichtenberg may have been perceived as lacking the bulk many South African selectors would look for in a No.8.
It’s maybe no surprise given Meyer’s clout in South Africa that he’s been able to lure talent with the promise of game time and the bright lights of America and the MLR.
However, convincing young players that a stint in the still-evolving tournament would be a good career move might have taken a stronger argument. Meyer may well have argued that playing time at the MLR beats fighting for a Currie Cup place against more established players.
The players likely view MLR as a platform to prove themselves before potentially heading back to South Africa or Europe as more experienced operators, as opposed to an end unto itself.
A former Leicester Tigers, Stormers and Bulls boss, Meyer led the Springboks to a third-place finish at the 2015 World Cup in England. He went on to become head coach at Stade Francais, before taking up his current role. While his rugby nous is beyond reproach, clearly when appointing DoRs clubs also look at what they do with regards to recruitment, and the Sabercats are certainly getting bang for their buck with Meyer.
The question might be for South African rugby: is talent drain to the MLR a real long-term concern for franchises?
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