Japan stints to help keep Boks in SA?

    2017-02-21 17:30

    Cape Town - One of the major challenges facing SA Rugby as they plot the way forward is finding ways to keep their best players in South Africa. 

    It is a battle that is not being won presently, with the lure of the pound and euro making it increasingly difficult to persuade the country's brightest talents to base themselves at home. 

    It weakens the Super Rugby franchises and, more importantly, it complicates Springbok matters. 

    Having initially looked to back locally-based players in 2016, Springbok coach Allister Coetzee soon found himself calling on more and more players based in Europe. 

    Desperate times called for desperate measures. 

    As the country awaits an announcement from SA Rugby on what exactly the Bok coaching team will look like in 2017, one certainty is that player retention will be high up on the list of priorities. 

    Of course, Europe is not the only attractive option for South Africans. 

    Japan has become an increasingly big player, and every year there are South Africans who return from stints in the Top League just in time for Super Rugby. 

    It may seem like a hindrance having South Africans playing their rugby in Japan, but it could be a blessing in the long run. 

    The Japanese season does not impact on Super Rugby (which runs from February until the beginning of August), and it also breaks over November when the Boks would be on their northern hemisphere tour. 

    The natural worry is that players cannot be expected to play throughout the year, but if a stint in Japan and the financial reward that comes with that keeps a player in South Africa for Super Rugby and prevents them from going to Europe, then surely it should be viewed as a positive. 

    "It’s always a challenge having Japanese-based players, but that’s not something we can prevent going forward," Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said in Cape Town this week.

    "That's an agreement that the players have in place and I certainly think that when SA Rugby make those decisions on how to retain our players there might be more players drifting off to Japan over that season.

    "As rugby franchises we need to all get together and understand what the right time is for these players to come back, and how much break they get when they do come back. Because they can’t be playing rugby for 12 months of a year."

    So, could we have a situation where South African players are encouraged to go to Japan and then rest for the opening rounds of the Super Rugby season? 

    In 2016, the Stormers had a number of key players returning from Japan ahead of Super Rugby, including Damian de Allende, Schalk Burger and Eben Etzebeth. 

    It proved to be a problem, given that De Allende returned injured and Etzebeth was in need of rest. 

    This season, though, the Stormers have no players returning from Japan after both Etzebeth and De Allende opted for time out in Cape Town.

    "It’s nice to get an off-season and spend some time with the family and get away," Etzebeth said.

    "And also the mental break ... my last game was the beginning of November so I’m looking forward to playing a rugby game again."

    "It certainly helps in the sense that we’ve had our full group together since January," Fleck added.

    "Eben had that opportunity to go abroad and he chose to come back and have a mental break from the game. When you’ve got your big Springboks training with you from day one, it makes a huge difference in terms of your planning and strategies. For the first time in a long time, we’ve had that." 

    The Lions, meanwhile, have a number of players who are returning from Japan, including skipper Warren Whiteley, Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe, Franco Mostert and Jaco Kriel.

    "It's tough to manage that. Those are things that the Lions might encounter for the first time now," Fleck said.

    "Fortunately we've been through that with various players over the years and we know how to deal with it going forward and I'm sure Ackies (Lions coach Johan Ackerman) and Rudolf Straeuli (CEO) will know exactly how to handle it.

    "They're experienced ... they've got a quality squad and I'm sure they'll be able to manage their players correctly. It is a challenge, but I don't think they're going to let that get in their way."

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