South African rugby’s now infamous ‘escape clause’ – the provision allowing local players to be unconditionally released from their current contracts if they can organise an overseas deal – has become as polarised as the debate over government’s lockdown.
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Alarmists argue it’s going to merely compound the country’s player exodus.
Others are more chilled on the matter, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic has his overseas clubs’ coffers just as hard and that the inherent uncertainty of the current climate will see players opt for the familiar, even if it hits their pockets.
We won’t know which camp’s prediction proved prophetic until Thursday midnight.
But it’s undeniable that the threat is real and the Super Rugby franchises in particular are vulnerable.
While they could potentially lose various players, here’s a look at the players from each team whose departure would be considered the “meatiest blow”.
BULLS: Lizo Gqoboka
New director of rugby Jake White has a few prime Springbok talents on his books who would interest international suitors.
A move for Warrick Gelant would rob the Bulls of a future mainstay of their backline, while Trevor Nyakane’s immense set-piece value is difficult to replace though White would at least have Marcel van der Merwe on the roster.
But it’s Gqoboka’s void that would be a devastating blow to the men from Loftus.
There isn’t an abundance of experienced looseheads in South Africa at the moment and the Bulls would be particularly vulnerable with only other No 1 with meaningful Super Rugby exposure being the green Simphiwe Matanzima.
At 30, Gqoboka has reached his prime and has improved yearly.He would be vital to White’s project.
LIONS: Elton Jantjies
There’s an argument to be made that Malcolm Marx would be a critical blow, yet we kind of got a glimpse of that already during the Lions’ ghastly if short Super Rugby campaign in 2020.
Also, given that the Bulls arguably have too many decent hookers on their books, Rudolf Straeuli and co could easily nab a Corniel Els or Johan Grobbelaar.
After all, they’ve done it before...
Instead, Jantjies is the one the Lions can’t afford to let slip from their grasp.
Their captain and chief playmaker is the heartbeat of the current vintage, an experienced, versatile and classy exponent who’s the glue for a team firmly in transition.
The alarming lack of any discernible succession planning in the flyhalf position would compound such a situation.
SHARKS: Lukhanyo Am
Makazole Mapimpi would be sorely missed, but a team boasting backups like S’bu Nkosi and Madosh Tambwe, even Lwazi Mvovo, can’t plead poverty.
It’s different when it comes to Am.
Let’s be honest, the Sharks skipper is a premium player.
He has an underrated turn of pace.
The All Blacks pinpointed him as the Springboks’ mastermind on defence.
His handling is nimble and his reading of the game creates buckets of opportunities for those around him.
And he’s a bloody good ball-poacher too.Where do you find a ready-made replacement with that skillset?
STORMERS: Frans Malherbe
There’s a reason why many are fearful of the type of losses the Stormers could suffer – John Dobson boasts an envious group of players with proven class.
Yet it’s hard to see Siya Kolisi suddenly having a change of heart regarding his very public stance that South Africa provides him with everything he needs.
And while Pieter-Steph du Toit is the best player in the world, there are gifted rookies in Cobus Wiese, Ernst van Rhyn and Juarno Augustus eager to make their mark.
Herschel Jantjies would leave a considerable hole and Steven Kitshoff, much like Gqoboka, is in his prime though the promising Kwenzo Blose and reliable Ali Vermaak could deputise.
However, it’s the disappearance of the specialised skills of Malherbe that would put the Stormers in a difficult position.
An exciting, young backline needs its platform and the Bok prop, with his high work-rate on defence and powerful scrumming, is a vital role player in that quest.
With Wilco Louw already on his way, the Cape franchise would suddenly be left with, well, nothing.