South Africa 2023

Lions tour, RWC: Will they halt player exodus?

2017-11-10 11:25
Gary Teichmann (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Two World Cups in the space of four years between 2019 and 2023, the latter likely to be on South African soil, and a British and Irish Lions tour as tasty meat in the sandwich in 2021.

It is an almost unprecedented roster for rugby quality and appeal, the bulk of it on our turf – assuming RWC 2023 is successfully banked, as now keenly anticipated, next week – and perhaps only matched once before in SA when the country hosted its maiden World Cup in 1995 and then the Lions visited two years later, after a particularly long absence since Bill Beaumont’s 1980 side.

At least in the short- to medium-term, it seems those three looming, red-letter events may have the positive effect of easing – but only temporarily – the problematic exodus of domestic rugby players to more financially attractive overseas club contracts.

The South African Rugby Union are keeping largely mum on the subject at present, as they await with bated breath the revelation of the RWC 2023 host country next Wednesday, but it is understood that top officials there do anticipate any green light on that front playing a key role in keeping decent players – both Springbok already or potential Boks -- more keenly home-based in the gradual lead-up.

In short, the next six years, all going well, may see a firmer desire by many South African stars to devote their energies to local franchises, even if almost certainly less rewarding in salary terms to the stronger-currency deals being offered in countries like France and England.

Cynics might argue that that is an optimistic scenario, especially given reasonably charitable present SARU stipulations that, in World Cup years, overseas-based players can be considered for the national squad anyway. (In all other years, new rules dictate that only players boasting 30 Test caps or more are eligible for the green-and-gold cause.)

But those people may also not have taken into account a developing trend, suggesting that foreign-based players are increasingly being given a wide berth by the Boks: this has certainly been the case under the Allister Coetzee coaching regime.

Since Coetzee took the reins in 2016, for instance, only Bath-based Francois Louw, of various big-name overseas South Africans, has featured with any notable regularity (11 appearances, and again part of the squad about to tackle four Tests the northern hemisphere) for the Springboks.

Utility back Francois Hougaard of Worcester Warriors also got reasonably generous exposure for a while, but has since fallen out of favour, meaning Louw is the lone ranger in a European-touring squad of 34 who is permanently attached to a non-SA franchise/club.

The Boks have in their midst a few players who have dual contracts allowing for stints in Japan during the South African summer, but the fact that they remain eligible for Super Rugby sides here really makes them effectively “local”.

Broadly speaking, though, all of the still Bok-aspirant players employed abroad will have noticed that they are hardly flavours of the month for international call-ups, with Coetzee and his lieutenants hugely prioritising home-based candidates to foster unity, better cohesion and more common, streamlined levels of fitness and conditioning.

Perhaps not without reason, given certain case studies in recent times, South Africans who ply their professional trade in France, particularly, are increasingly overlooked, so any there with ambitions for either or both of the next World Cups and the Lions tour (the latter only a once-in-a-dozen-years occurrence) may well be chewing on possibilities of striking new deals back home sooner rather than later.

Gary Teichmann, captain of the first Tri-Nations-winning Boks of 1998 and now CEO of the Sharks, takes a slightly cautionary, mixed view over the premier-level event treats probably heading our way over the next few years.

He admits that they should serve as “a bit of a carrot” in persuading players to stick to the local scene for a better chance of a Bok nod in the appealing period between 2019 and 2023.

“It gives us something (as a lure) … but we shouldn’t see it as too much more than that,” he added when approached by Sport24. “It is an attraction, but it is also not the be-all and end-all.

“We have to strive to do everything we can to keep players (in South Africa) and what is coming up in calendar terms definitely helps.

“For example, although we didn’t manage to win that series in 1997, I can confirm from personal memory that playing in a British and Irish Lions series is a rare, special experience.

“That said, you still have to have your structures right to ensure best chance of player retention; you can’t just rely on nice-looking rosters when they come around as they’re a temporary (phenomenon).”

Teichmann said a pro rugby player’s career might only last some 10 years, so maximising income potential remained a strong priority in most cases.

“Rugby’s a short span; you must look after yourself (financially) as best you can.

“So the challenge in South Africa is still enormous, and you have to come up with various initiatives to keep players rooted here.

“At the Sharks, we’re big on trying to create a culture, a quality of (environment) that makes it appealing to stay. It also involves helping upskill the guys for their lives after rugby.”

Eugene Henning, managing director of MyPlayers, the official body representing the professional players in South Africa, has similarly guarded views to Teichmann on the topic.

“Having big events like a Lions tour and World Cup is great for your country, the economy, the local rugby industry, but actual spin-offs in player contracting? I’m not too sure.

“As things stand, there will still be a lot of pro players in our country who aren’t sure what their futures hold once the next Super Rugby campaign ends, regardless of any event attractions further up the road.

“The biggest reality in player retention is still the fight with the exchange rate … you will probably never be able to conquer that.

“It is vital we have all stakeholders, including the players’ agents, working together to tackle the problem. Agents are key; you can’t exclude them from the retention process.

“I can assure you that lots of players are keen to stay in South Africa, but how we manage them, cater for their needs, is critical.”

Henning said a good starting principle was to ensure that up-and-coming 21-year-olds and the like were nailed down to local deals for several years.

“Ideally you want to lock a guy like that in five or six years, then even help him from a facilitating point of view if he wishes to exploit stronger-salaried positions elsewhere.”

Playing in another home-staged World Cup? Or the first Lions tour of these shores since 2009? Clearly they are very valued feathers to a rugby player’s cap.

But a glance at rand exchange rates – 18.55 to the pound, 16.41 to the Euro at the time of writing – also serves as a stark reminder of the tempering factors Henning and Teichmann were talking about.

There’s still that bigger picture for the rugby-playing individual, frankly, of making hay, in monetary security terms, while the sun shines.

Just for a while, though, a “rot” may be checked a bit … 

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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