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
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
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”.
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