Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Jean de Villiers is quickly being proved right ... overseas clubs are unapologetically targeting younger South African rugby stars more vigorously than before.
You could say open season has been declared for poaching; there are no longer reasonable boundaries or etiquette.
In an exclusive series of interviews with Sport24 published last week, the veteran Springbok captain, who had a short stint abroad himself with Munster a few years ago, expressed special concern about the expected exodus of talent from these shores following this World Cup year.
De Villiers said he sensed that players not yet in their prime domestically – as opposed to the former trend of long-in-the-tooth stars signing lucrative late-career deals in Europe or Japan – were now vulnerable virtually as much to seizure by cash-flush clubs overseas.
Within days of his concerns being aired, two of the most up-and-coming forwards in South Africa, first the Bulls’ athletic 21-year-old utility factor Jacques du Plessis and then Stormers loose-head prop Steven Kitshoff, who turns 23 on Tuesday, were revealed to have taken up contracts from the end of this season with Montpellier and Bordeaux respectively.
Recruitment from South Africa has become increasingly “youthful”: a few years ago, early thirtysomethings were main targets, more recently players in their mid- to late twenties started to fall for the lure ... but the loss of both Du Plessis and Kitshoff signals particularly dangerous new ground.
In short, these players will leave before their likely, fullest potential has been realised domestically ... and with a trend in that regard taking root, the phenomenon may only mushroom.
Throw in the fact that names like Jan Serfontein (21) and perhaps already the country’s best lock Eben Etzebeth (23) have also been linked to big-money moves to Europe, and SARU clearly face a sterner battle than ever before to hold onto the cream of our playing assets, both current and future.
Duane Vermeulen may just have been named SA Rugby Player of the Year – hardly a surprise considering his unceasingly inspiring 2014 -- but ironically there is perhaps less cause for alarm about the seasoned No 8 (he turns 29 in July) reportedly taking up a multi-million rand deal in France or England after RWC 2015.
Vermeulen has served the local scene in yeoman fashion, if you consider that he began his career on the punishing Super Rugby treadmill in 2007 for the Cheetahs, so the recently-appointed Stormers captain for 2015 will embark at Loftus on Saturday on his ninth season of potential activity in the competition, even if long-term injuries have sometimes interrupted him.
By the time he departs for foreign climes -- if it actually occurs, as strongly rumoured – the cash will not be the lone reason for his switch of landscape; he will have necessarily succumbed to the reality that his body and mind will have had more than their fair share of globe-trotting in the SANZAR competition.
It is also why the likes of co-stalwarts Jaque Fourie, Fourie du Preez, JP Pietersen, Schalk Burger and Andries Bekker have settled into agreeable new first-class employment in Japan, which in one or two cases has also helped extend Test-match possibilities, given that franchise-level wear and tear is less acute.
It is much less palatable, however, for South African-based rugby enthusiasts to resign themselves to the emerging likes of Du Plessis, Kitshoff and others being plucked away after a flimsy two or three seasons, say, in which their optimal skills have not yet been fully evidenced either at Currie Cup or Super Rugby level.
No longer can European or Asian clubs be dismissively branded swansong havens for our has-beens: taking advantage of South Africa’s deepening currency and general economic weakness, these outfits seem likely only to ruthlessly crank up their quest to coax SA players at, near or even some way short of their peak.
The timing of this all-embracing assault is dreadfully inconvenient, too, if SANZAR’s dogged, controversial obsession with expansion of Super Rugby is taken into account.
The competition swells still further in 2016 to 18 teams, including a sixth South African element as the Kings attempt to reinvent themselves once more – this time without the Lions having to make way for them.
Last year, our conference was the weakest-performing of the three, even with only five sides, so with an additional franchise plus the debilitating sideshow of upped recruitment overseas of players both young and old, it is difficult to believe South African standards will improve – a drop further “southward” seems far likelier.
It is believed that SARU plan to reveal around March the complex matter of how they intend dealing – if it is even really possible, at the end of the day? -- with the talent-drain issue.
That moment cannot come quickly enough, because you wonder how many more young guns might succumb to foreign financial charms in the interim ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing