Johannesburg - Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s priority will always be to pick local players first, but the South African Rugby Union may have conceded the fight to keep top Springboks in South Africa in the near future.
According to the supersport.com website, the recent spate of overseas signings by top Boks like Juandre Kruger and Bryan Haban have prompted concerns that Bok rugby may have reached a tipping point, especially with Bok coach Meyer’s willingness to choose players from overseas not being a restraint as it was in the past.
With the exchange rate making it almost impossible for SARU and provinces to compete in terms of cash, a larger Super Rugby season that is placing massive physical demands on players and the ever-increasing shift towards a global season, players no longer see a stint overseas as a career-ending payday, but rather a way to maximise their income.
According to SA Rugby Players Association head Piet Heymans, clubs in Europe have upped the ante in terms of salaries and have made it impossible for local franchises to compete.
“We had some serious discussions back in 2007 primarily to ensure that overseas players are still available for the Boks if needed. The scenario is the same as it was then, that the Bok coach would first look locally before looking abroad,” Heymans said.
“What we are currently seeing is that amounts offered to players have been substantially increased over the past few years and it is almost impossible for Saru and a province to even match this. Add to this the fact that travelling in Europe is minimal and even if players have an away game, they mostly sleep at home that night. It makes a difference for a player wanting to prolong his career.
“I don’t think it is a situation we will be able to stop in the future.”
The situation is exacerbated by the demands of Super Rugby which has increased thanks to the bigger season, and with so many injuries, players like Kruger – who see themselves as safe without too much competition in their position – feel it worthwhile to risk moving abroad and waiting for the call.
Meyer has already shown he will pick from wherever in the world, and with Saru unlikely to come up with a contracting model that can counter this, a further exodus is likely in future.
With the Springbok contracts expiring at the end of last year, SARPA and SARU are currently in negotiations to finalise the new contracts before the season begins but in all likelihood there will be fewer contracts available than before.
Players now also feel they can sign contracts for Super Rugby and the international season without any Currie Cup duty to constrain them to stay.
SARU Chief Executive Jurie Roux confirmed to supersport.com that the policy had not changed, but that it is up to Meyer’s discretion whether he wants to pick players from abroad.
“Heyneke has frequently said that that is his preferred approach, but it is at his discretion,” Roux told supersport.com.
“Our policy remains unchanged and the national coach has a dispensation to select overseas-based South African players that can help the Springboks win test matches.”
Roux does not believe that Meyer’s willingness to select overseas players will lead to a mass exodus of Boks though.
“The policy has been in place for a number of years now and we’re sure that it has not significantly affected the decision-making process for players and has certainly not led to any exodus.
"We were talking about the ‘player drain’ long before the policy came into place and the key drivers then remain the key drivers now – it’s about earning potential and lifestyle as well as career opportunities for a few players who believe they may be able to play international rugby for another country.
“The question has been asked since Francois Pienaar and Joel Stransky departed in 1996/7 and the answer remains the same - every time one player leaves it creates an opportunity for an up-and-coming youngster.
"Would Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi, for instance, have got their chances so early at the DHL Stormers if players such as Anton van Zyl, Adriaan Fondse and Francois and Pieter Louw had not gone overseas before the start of last season? Rugby teams are in a constant state of re-generation and this is just one of the factors involved in the process.”
SARU are looking at ways of combating player fatigue, but until the SANZAR contract expires are rather limited in what they can do, especially as they don’t believe Super Rugby’s length has an impact on players’ decisions to go abroad.