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You're wrong, Jake. Overseas players only make South African rugby stronger

By Daniel Gallan
Sale Sharks' Faf de Klerk (right) and Lood de Jager celebrate victory after the final whistle in the Gallagher Premiership match at Twickenham Stoop, London. Picture date: Sunday February 6, 2022. (Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

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In the wake of his side’s 18-13 loss to the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship final, the Bulls head coach Jake White opted to pick at an old scab that has bothered him for some time.

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“I don’t think you should allow guys to play overseas and come back and be a Springbok,” the 2007 World Cup winning coach said as the Stormers players popped champagne bottles in another room at the Cape Town stadium.

“I think it cheapens everything that people stood for. The reality is quite simple. Why would you stay in South Africa? Ask every guy if he would work in London for double his salary in pounds. Are they going to stay and work here? Why would you do that when you can still come back [from overseas] and play for South Africa?”

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Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber on foreign versus locally-based players
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Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber on foreign versus locally-based players

This is a drum that White has banged for some time now. When he was South Africa’s coach between 2004 and 2007, players who went abroad effectively ended their chances of donning the green and gold of their country. That remained true until Rassie Erasmus took charge of a team in disarray in 2018 and turned them into world beaters within 18 months.

In the three-Test series against England on home soil, Erasmus welcomed back the previously exiled Faf de Klerk from Sale, Willie le Roux from Wasps, Duane Vermeulen from Toulon and the Montpellier pair of Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Steyn.

South Africa won that series 2-1 but had to fight back in the first Test after a three-try blitz from England in Johannesburg left them stunned. In his first Test as captain, Siya Kolisi entrusted Vermeulen to address the team in what is widely credited as a turning point in that contest.

Would Kolisi have become the torchbearer for a transformed Springbok outfit without Vermeuelen’s speech? It’s hard to say. Had South Africa lost that game they might have lost the series. How much faith would the South African public have placed in an exuberant coach and an untested skipper? Would they have lifted the World Cup in Japan without that early impetus and belief?

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These are impossible questions to answer. What is beyond debate is the fact that no other rugby nation with realistic World Cup aspirations relies as much on its foreign based players.

Let’s examine the squads assembled for these July internationals starting this week. Every single member of the New Zealand, Ireland, France and England squads play for local clubs or franchises. Four of Australia’s 35-man group play in Japan. Six prominent members of Wales’s team represent English clubs while three quarters of Scotland’s squad call Edinburgh or Glasgow home.

Argentina are the exception as only two of their their players – Ignacio Ruiz and Mayco Vivas – represent the Jaguares. 17 play in France, eight in England and six in Italy, Scotland and New Zealand, including former captain Pablo Matera who helped the Crusaders to a Super Rugby title this month.

But Argentina aren’t going to win next year’s World Cup. South Africa, the defending champions, will be confident of lifting their fourth Webb Ellis Cup. And within their squad of 43 for the home series against Wales are 19 Springboks who collect a monthly salary in either pounds, euros or yen.

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That’s 44% of the Springbok group. It’s an extraordinary departure from what White believes was a necessary policy that preserved the integrity of the Springbok heritage. It would be easy to label White’s view as antiquated or rooted in jingoism, but the Springboks touch a part of the national psyche that few organisations can reach. They evoke a primal response from those who adore them. This is a team that transcends rational thought. Even former coaches aren’t immune to this ancient rumble.

But White’s claims are influenced by rugby reasons. He claims that a player drain, as he would see it, weakens South Africa’s domestic teams. Recent evidence would counter his argument. Few expected the Bulls to dismantle Leinster in the URC semi-finals and an all South African showpiece suggests that the production line of talent is still functioning as it should.

This is an important point. If the foreign based Springboks continued to represent the clubs that developed them, they would be standing in the way of younger players who would otherwise wither on the vine. How many promising young English players, for example, will fade into obscurity because of a lack of opportunity in the Premiership?

There is also the question over finances that one must consider when evaluating the worth of selecting South Africans from abroad. As Erasmus wrote in his column for the Daily Mail in March: “People say South Africa are 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.

“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.”

What’s more, those players who play abroad are also exposed to different coaching philosophies in leagues that play a different brand of rugby. They share a dressing room with team-mates from a range of cultures and are forced to challenge themselves in an alien land. Every foreign based Springbok that I have interviewed, to a man, believes that they have grown as a player and a person because they no longer live in the country of their birth.

It may bother the likes of Jake White and others stuck in a bygone age, but for the majority of Springbok supporters the only currency that counts is trophies in the cabinet. And this team, drawn from 19 different clubs from five different countries, might yet win more than any other.

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