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Will selecting overseas-based players become a trend after South Africa's compelling triumph?

Could South Africa’s World Cup triumph spark a new trend in international rugby – that of a country willingly letting its players play their club rugby abroad in the next four-year cycle and using that experience of playing and living overseas to help conjure a champion mix for France 2023? 

Protectionism has been rife at international level in recent times, six of the eight World Cup quarter-finalists closing their borders and only working with squads containing players based at home with local clubs.

England, Ireland and New Zealand were among those who had long made it a stipulation that the only way a player would be selected for their national team was to be based in their home country. 

With France, Japan and Australia all similarly selecting in this way for the recent finals in Japan, just two of the countries who made it through to the last eight had different rules governing player selection. 

Semi-finalists Wales – who took four English Premiership-based players with them to Japan – still had some restrictive regulations in place. Look at how Toulon-based Rhys Webb was never in the mix for selection due to the 60-cap rule applicable to those earning their living away outside Wales.

(Continue reading below…)

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But what of new champions South Africa? They really broke the mould in the innovative way they went about selecting their Test side. 

It was 2017 when former Springboks coach Allister Coetzee went along with a plan to only ever select overseas-based players with 30-plus caps. The stipulation was brought in to try and slow the drain of young players who had been leaving for lucrative contracts in England, France and Japan.

The policy’s genesis was understandable – protecting the integrity of the domestic game within South Africa. Come the start of 2019, however, it was unceremoniously scrapped, Rassie Erasmus insisting that when he came home from Munster to take over as SARU director of rugby in 2018 that everything was ripe for change.

His way proved to be the glory way as the Springboks lifted the World Cup in Yokohama with a matchday squad of 23 containing five players who played last season in the English Premiership and another two who were heavily involved in the French Top 14.  

Having seven of a cup-winning 23 based overseas and beyond a national team coach’s control outside of the stipulated World Rugby Test window – eight when you include Cobus Reinach who wasn’t involved for the final – was quite a feat compared to the actively enforced no overseas policy of the likes of the All Blacks, England and Ireland.

Mention of Ireland: Erasmus took the reins in South Africa following a season and a bit at the helm in Munster, the club where two departures – Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan – became surplus to Test team selection when they decided their club futures were best served in the Top 14 at Racing. 

 

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National boss Joe Schmidt wasn’t having that and he soon jettisoned them from his Test squad. The New Zealander claimed the difficulties he experienced in getting Johnny Sexton available for Ireland training during his two seasons in France drove him to distraction, especially the complications surrounding the player’s situation with concussions at the time. 

As soon as Sexton was lured back into the IRFU fold in time for the 2015 World Cup, Schmidt had no interest in any player not attached to one of the local provinces. They were off his radar. 

Having seen this Irish way in action at close quarters, Erasmus would have long pondered the value of its application in a South African context. 

His conclusion? It was pretty stupid to willingly weakening your Test squad when you could have the best of both worlds, a chunk of your squad who benefit from travel broadening the mind mixing in vibrantly with a pile of home-based players.

The fear of the protectionist countries – such as the likes of Ireland – is that once a player is attached to a club in England or France, they have no say in how much rugby he plays. The worry is that they will be flogged and won’t be in peak condition for Test duty, but what Erasmus has achieved with his Boks in recent months goes against the grain of that claim. 

Looks at his Premiership six: between them, Vincent Koch, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw, Faf de Klerk, Reinach and the now Japanese-based Willie le Roux were involved in a combined total of 134 English/European club matches in the 2018/19 season before pitching up for World Cup camp in South Africa.

 

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Similarly busy were their French-based duo from last season, Frans Steyn and Cheslin Kolbe involved in a total of 43 2018/19 club matches.

All that activity beyond South African borders and beyond the control of Erasmus did them no harm whatsoever in being at their best for a 2019 Test calendar that commenced on July 20 in Johannesburg with a Rugby Championship win over Australia and culminated 15 weeks later with England beaten in the World Cup final.

It starkly illustrated how Erasmus did this World Cup his way and having ultimately won the whole shooting match, will the protectionist countries be tempted to follow suit and give their Test players the green light to work away from home and still be considered for national duty?

After all, it’s now a proven winning formula. Just ask Rassie. 

SPRINGBOKS OVERSEAS PLAYER ACTIVITY IN 2018/19

ENGLAND 

Cobus Reinach – 30 Northampton outings (21 Premiership starts & 1 as sub, 2 Challenge Cup starts & 2 as sub, 3 Premiership Cup starts & 1 as sub)

Vincent Koch – 29 Saracens outings (15 Premiership starts & 3 as sub, 6 Champions Cup starts & 3 as sub, 1 Premiership Rugby Cup start & 1 as sub)

Faf de Klerk – 23 Sale outings (16 Premiership starts, 7 Challenge Cup starts)

Willie le Roux – Wasps 19 Wasps matches (15 Premiership starts, 4 Champions Cup starts) – now signed with Toyota Verblitz

Francois Louw – 17 Bath outings (10 Premiership starts & 1 as sub, 5 Champions Cup starts & 1 as sub)

Franco Mostert – 16 Gloucester outings (13 Premiership starts & 1 as sub, 2 Champions Cup starts)

FRANCE

Cheslin Kolbe – 24 Toulouse outings (16 Top 14 starts, 8 Champions Cup starts) 

Frans Steyn – 19 Montpellier outings (14 Top 14 starts & 1 as sub, 4 Champions Cup starts)

WATCH: RugbyPass hears from some rowdy fans following South Africa’s World Cup final win

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Will selecting overseas-based players become a trend after South Africa's compelling triumph?