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What the Springboks' World Cup win means for full-scale centralised contracting

By Ben Smith
Siya Kolisi, the South Africa captain, celebrates with team mates after their victory during the Rugby World Cup 2019 final. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

South Africa are a groundbreaking team for many reasons – the first side to win the World Cup after losing a pool match, the first side to win the World Cup and the Rugby Championship in the same year.

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A lesser talked about factor, but an important one, is that the Springboks were the first side to win the World Cup with overseas-based players.

Each World Cup winner in the past did so under the requirement that players must play their club rugby at home. South Africa has broken that mould, proving it can be done another way.

Continue reading below…

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SARU still retain majority ownership and control of their domestic teams under a centralised model, but under Rassie Erasmus they abolished the rules around selecting overseas-based players.

No longer would they prevent players from representing the Springboks due to playing abroad without being contracted to a SARU-union.

The move opened the door for some of the world’s best players to return to the national fold, including Faf de Klerk, Willie Le Roux, Duane Vermeulen (before officially returning to the Bulls), Cheslin Kolbe, and experienced veterans like Frans Steyn, Francois Louw.

The impact was almost immediate as De Klerk, Vermeulen and Le Roux were integral to winning the first home series under Erasmus against England 2-1 in June 2018.

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De Klerk and Le Roux were also critical to securing the first win on New Zealand soil in nearly 10 years during The Rugby Championship later that season. South Africa rose to the challenge of the All Blacks over the two tests to highlight the promise within the squad with a full complement of stars.

The Springboks continued that trajectory in 2019, tightening up their defence even further on the way to a Rugby Championship title before pushing onward to demolish England in the World Cup final.

Vermeulen was named man-of-the-match, while Kolbe put the cherry on top with a wicked run for the final try, two players that benefitted from the change of eligibility rules.

Opening the doors to overseas-based players, it has to be said, has paid off for South Africa.

Whilst the Springboks’ success cannot solely be attributed to this move, it does throw further doubts over the notion that full-scale centralised models are critical – or even highly correlated – to the success of a national side.

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It didn’t matter that the Springboks all play around the world with different coaches from different nationalities, playing different styles of rugby. They came together as one under the right coaching and support staff with under two years to shape them.

The other World Cup finalist, despite not allowing overseas-based players in the national side, has a privatised club model and again isn’t a full-scale centralised union.

The RFU does not have the level of control over the national playing base that the other unions have, but they were able to field one of their best ever teams and deservedly made the final.

South Africa’s World Cup win proves that the weight put on this operating model is probably overblown and that ‘control’ doesn’t necessarily correlate with success.

Springboks’ trophy tour in South Africa:

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Jon 1 hours ago
Sam Cane was unfairly cast in Richie McCaw's shadow for too long

> McCaw’s durability and sustained excellence were unique, but we seemed to believe his successors were cut from the same cloth. It’s easy to forget McCaw was just as heavily critiqued for the last two years of his career. The only real difference was his captaining criticisms and his playing criticisms happened at different times, where Cane was criticized for a few things in both areas for all of his last 4 years. This was also heavily influenced by another McCaw esque presence, in Ardie Savea, being in the team and pushed out of his original position. It could be said we essentially didn’t have the 3 prior years with Ardie as world player of the year because he was changing into this new role. I say “original” position as despite him never coming out and saying his desire is to perform his role from, that I know of, clearly as part of a partnership with Cane as 7, I don’t think this was because he really wanted Cane’s playing spot. I think it most likely that it comes down to poor All Black management that those sort of debates weren’t put to bed as being needless and irrelevant. It has been brought up many times in past few months of discussions on articles here at RP, that early calls in WC cycles, to say pigeonhole an All Black team into being required to have a physical dynamo on defence at 7 (and ballplyaer at 8 etc) are detrimental. In the end we did not even come up against a team that threw large bodies at us relentlessly, like why we encountered in the 2019 WC semi final, at all in this last WC. Even then they couldn’t see the real weakness was defending against dynamic attacks (which we didn’t want to/couldn’t give 2019 England credit for) like the Twickenham Boks, and Irish and French sides (even 10 minutes of an English onslaught) that plagued our record and aura the last 4 years. It really is a folly that is the All Blacks own creation, and I think it pure luck, and that Cane was also such a quality All Black, that he was also became an integral part of stopping the side from getting run off the park. Not just rampaged. > The hushed tones, the nods of approval, the continued promotion of this nonsense that these men are somehow supernatural beings. I bet this author was one of those criticizing Cane for coming out and speaking his mind in defence of his team that year. Despite the apparent hypocrisy I agree with the sentiment, but I can only see our last captain as going down the same road his two prior captains, Read and McCaw, have gone. I am really for Cane becoming an extra member to each squad this year, June, RC, and November tours, and he is really someone I can see being able to come back into the role after 3 seasons in Japan. As we saw last year, we would have killed for someone of his quality to have been available rather than calling on someone like Blackadder. Just like the Boks did for 2023.

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