Johannesburg - While we were finding new and catchy ways to describe how abject the Springboks have been of late, a few seemingly unobtrusive headlines caught the eye.
Eben Etzebeth turned down a lucrative contract to play rugby in the UK during the southern hemisphere off-season; Damian de Allende cried off going to Japan during year-end break; Jesse Kriel described his thigh injury as a blessing in disguise because it would afford him some rest (again, no excesses in Japan) and Johan Goosen moaned long and hard about Parisian winters and being out of position at Racing Metro.
On the face of it, three of South Africa’s key players, going forward, will start next year with the luxury of having had an off season, while one wants to come back home to stake his claim (apparently from the traditionally low-paying Cheetahs) on the vacant Bok fly half position.
But while this does not signal the overseas-based players coming home en masse, it does go a long way towards settling the debate about whether they should still be free to play in the Bok team or not.
Etzebeth’s, De Allende’s and Kriel’s decisions to skip opportunities to top up their coffers in favour of good old-fashioned rest proves that players leaving South Africa for better currencies in the UK, France and Japan is as much about money as it is not.
It obviously is about money because they leave to make more. But judging by their picking and choosing when to do it, poverty was never the reason they left in the first place.
I’m not saying players, or indeed their agents in this case, shouldn’t be on the lookout for opportunities to make more money while their bodies can still take the pounding.
But for a while now, this has been sold to us a bit as if they’d be ruined if they didn’t go overseas.
Proof that Etzebeth and De Allende aren’t worried about such misadventure is that Western Province, their employer, have applied for liquidation.
My understanding is that, over the last year or so, SA Rugby’s attempts to keep players in the country – by paying part of their salaries – mean a top Bok earns upwards of R5 million a year.
As a middle-aged man living on the breadline, quibbling over whether you’re making R3 million to R5 million more is a First World problem in my life.
So, clearly, money isn’t as much of an issue as we’ve been led to believe, so what to do about the overseas Boks?
To answer that question, we have to look at how many Europe-based Boks have come and actually made a difference in the past.
I reckon only Percy Montgomery, Francois Louw, Bryan Habana and, to a lesser extent Fourie du Preez, have.
Montgomery came back from Wales and basically kicked the Boks to World Cup glory; Louw left South Africa as a blindside flanker and returned an excellent fetcher; and while Habana may be slower than he used to be, he hasn’t stopped scoring and putting his body on the line.
Du Preez looked like a million bucks when he returned from international retirement and played club rugby in Japan in 2013, but that was because he’d had two seasons to rejuvenate.
Usually a player coming back from the northern hemisphere seems to be a yard off the pace due to the lower intensity at which they play there.
This translates into much-needed reconditioning to get them back on terms, which nobody, least of all the Bok coach, has time for.
All Japan has done for SA Rugby is hand back exhausted players who are also half a yard off the pace because they’re so tired.
So, other than for their experience, why do we need these players?
The time has come for South African players to give up something to play for their country. Without that sacrifice, too many of them just look like they are going through the motions.
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