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    JP move bittersweet for Boks

    2013-04-23 12:51

    Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – It should come as little surprise that Heyneke Meyer is adopting a tactic of diplomatic silence at present over a looming new wave of top player "emigrations" from South Africa to cash-flush clubs abroad.

    The Springbok coach, after all, is relatively powerless to arrest the situation, although you can bet there will some fresh need for pow-wows at SARU and possibly SANZAR levels as blue-chip southern hemisphere players chase the stronger currencies and slightly more merciful playing schedules to the north in order to maximise their pro rugby career potential.

    Given the particularly ropey fortunes of the rand at present in a global context – all I saw were downward-facing red arrows again on Tuesday when I checked the exchange rates of the currency to the dollar, pound and Euro -- South African players are especially likely to be lured to countries like France, England and the booming environment of Japan.

    Meyer’s communications aides have indicated to Sport24 that he prefers not to comment on “specific players going overseas” – understandably so given the current, mostly undesirable fluidity of the situation.

    It was also reminded that the coach had broadly dealt with the overseas player hot potato when he spoke to journalists at the short Bok camp in this city last week: in a nutshell, Meyer confirmed that while his door was certainly open to those not campaigning locally, he would prioritise domestic players in what he saw as “50-50 situations”.

    It seems an even-handed, sensible approach considering delicate circumstances hardly of his making ... although the South African rugby landscape has been particularly shaken this week with revelations of JP Pietersen’s “dream deal” intentions to sign for a Japanese club later this year.

    He will become, after all, the youngest genuine backline superstar from these parts to commit a major chunk of his annual calendar loyalty to the aptly-named Land of the Rising Sun, and apparently not bank significantly less than former Lions and Stormers centre Jaque Fourie’s R10-million a year. (No wonder there’s a certain yearning for the yen.)

    Unlike World Cup-winning predecessors Fourie du Preez (31) and Fourie (30), Sharks kingpin Pietersen, one of relatively few present South African outside backs with truly world-revered X-factor, is only 26 and just approaching his prime, rather than having already gone comfortably over that hump.

    It is an indicator that South African players – no doubt mindful of how the derby-driven brutality of Super Rugby can greatly shorten or imperil careers because of the notorious injury and burn-out toll associated with it – may be lured away much younger henceforth.

    Where northern hemisphere exoduses were once largely the preserve of SA-based players “scaling back” to all intents and purposes after committing the lion’s share of their careers to the local scene, and usually aged roughly between 27 and 30, there seems a very real danger of that age group dipping to players not much beyond 25 and who will be leaving behind rather more obvious voids in household-name appeal.

    Pietersen will really become the new poster boy for that phenomenon, even if there have always been some notable exceptions like the single-minded Frans Steyn, who settled in France on hefty terms aged only a fledgling 21 (and, some may acidly note, has subsequently struggled to recapture best personal mojo as a 25-year-old “veteran” back at the Sharks).

    The Pietersen deal-in-waiting is a bittersweet one in a Springbok context, bearing in mind that he so obviously remains a vital source of strong-striding, much-needed backline oomph in Tests for his country.

    His agent James Adams is not wrong in trumpeting the fact that the intended contract will be “unique” because his client will remain available for the June Test window period and end-of-year tours for the Boks (plus Super Rugby for the Sharks).

    Yet Pietersen’s unavailability for the Rugby Championship – when you think about it, still the annual tournament that most influences bragging rights as it features the ongoing best three IRB-ranked sides on the planet -- is a bit like someone promising to enthusiastically attend the bachelor’s party, but just not the wedding itself.

    Are the Boks going to be prepared to pick him on the very specific instances where he says he can be free to represent the flag? And where does that place the player or players who put on the No 14 jersey in between? What will be the impact on squad harmony?

    A counter argument would be that Pietersen’s arrangement is simply a reality of the modern game, where players are able and to a good extent entitled to feather own nests as best they can, and that we should all be grateful still to be witnessing a very healthy dollop of his skills for two important South African causes.

    Still, it is going to make for some tricky, novel Springbok selection deliberations down the line and you can hardly blame Heyneke Meyer if he’s only thinking at present: “Hmm, perhaps I’ll cross that rickety old bridge when I get to it”.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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