Brenden Nel - SuperSpoprt
Johannesburg - Japan may be the newest kid on the block in Vodacom Super Rugby when the tournament gets a revamp at the end of this season, but they could also be South African rugby’s best friend in the fight to keep players at home.
According to the supersport.com website, South African Super Rugby franchises are actively seeking partnerships with Japanese clubs at the moment to “twin” and allow players to head abroad in the Absa Currie Cup season to play in Japan, then return home for Super Rugby.
This masterstroke is seen as one of the bigger ways of countering the threat from European clubs poaching players from South Africa and could also mean closing the gap between the salaries offered in Europe and those earned at home.
The first franchise to implement such an agreement have been the Toyota Cheetahs, who have twinning agreements now with two clubs in Japan, both through their sponsors Toyota to try and keep their players in South Africa for Super Rugby.
The Cheetahs already have two players – flanker Heinrich Brussow and midfielder Johann Sadie – who play for Japanese club Docomo Red Hurricanes and will continue to motivate for their players to pursue a dual season in both Japanese rugby and South Africa.
Brussow this year signed a new two year contract with the Red Hurricanes to return to Japan and the prospect is very real that a number of Cheetahs players will link up with Japanese clubs in the near future.
The decision for Cheetahs forwards coach Os du Randt to join Toyota Verblitz as a member of the coaching staff has further entrenched this, with the partnership with the Cheetahs’ team sponsor Toyota paving the way for the Cheetahs to offer contracts to players in future with the option of earning big money in Japan in the Currie Cup season.
The move is set to narrow the gap between what overseas clubs are offering and what teams can afford to pay them locally.
Salaries in Super Rugby are already standardised by SA Rugby with franchises receiving part of the Sanzar deal to help finance their squads. The problem normally comes in the Currie Cup season where the smaller franchises are unable to finance their squads in the same way.
Already several franchises have allowed players to head to Japan and return for Super Rugby – starting with the likes of Peter Grant, Wynand Olivier and others in the past few years.
What makes this different is that franchises are now actively courting the Japanese clubs and have said to agents they are open to the idea of players leaving South African shores for the Japanese season.
It is hoped that for the top players, the lure of a Japanese contract, coupled with a Springbok contract and their provincial deal will be enough to close the gap on the French clubs, who have raided the South African shores in recent times.
From a Japanese viewpoint, the influx of South Africans can be seen to help lift the standard of their rugby, especially after they won entry to Super Rugby from 2016 with a Japanese franchise under the coaching of former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones.
Currently though the big problem is that the Japanese league only allows two players to be on the field at any time, and with many Japanese clubs having up to eight foreigners on their books, many of them don’t play any rugby, especially considering there are only 14 games in the Japanese league.
Still the move is seen as the future of local contracting with both the Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers also looking to allow their players to go to Japan.
The Bulls High Performance manager Xander Janse van Rensburg told supersport.com that such a move “is the way of the future” if franchises want to compete with overseas clubs who are regularly raiding these shores.
French clubs have hit the Bulls hard in recent times, signing not only the senior talent but young prospects such as former SA under-20 locks Paul Willemse and Jacques du Plessis in the last two seasons to head abroad.
In both cases the Bulls were unable to match the offers in Euros, which were exorbitant in South African terms.
But for next season it seems the likes of captain Pierre Spies, midfielder JJ Engelbrecht and flanker Deon Stegmann all seem set to sign for Japanese clubs and return for Super Rugby if a deal can be done. Utility back Francois Hougaard is another targeted by the Japanese clubs and could do a similar deal after the World Cup.
For many players, there is a waiting game going on, with Springbok contracts not yet finalised and all eyes on who will make the World Cup squad, the Japanese option is being used as a bargaining tool as well, as many want to stay in South Africa but financially it is hard to compete otherwise.
And with SARU looking to up the Bok contracts financially, the Japanese option could well turn out to be the saviour of local Super Rugby franchises, with the Absa Currie Cup being used to blood younger players and ready them for Super Rugby.