Cape Town - Several talented South African rugby players have made the move to Europe to play for local clubs where the money is better, the politics a little less convoluted, and the opportunities for making a good life after sports, more abundant.
France, in particular, is an epicentre for this migration and one that has become home to a sizeable, interconnected community of past South African rugby players.
Players both here and abroad would have heard last week that new Bok coach, Rassie Erasmus, has softened the 30-cap threshold for selection eligibility, which was established to encourage players to stay in South Africa.
This could make Europe even more appealing for players eyeing the northern hemisphere’s notable perks.
After starting his career playing for the Stormers, lock Francois van der Merwe moved to France to play for Racing 92, a club based in suburban Paris, and then moved to fellow Top 14 club, Lyon.
Similarly, ex-Bulls and former Springbok lock Juandre Kruger, left South Africa to ply his trade for Racing 92 before joining Toulon.
The two players, along with around 50 others in top-flight French rugby union alone, are perfect examples of players who made the decision to seek greener pastures outside of their country after varying career lengths back home.
“I came over (to France) quite early on in my career, at about 24, 25 years old, which served me well because I got to learn the culture and the language early,” says Van der Merwe. “Back in the day, there used to be a handful of foreigners making up a team but that has completely changed. Now, there are a lot of South Africans making the move together and we’ve established a community of players who look out for each other.”
Kruger made the decision to move abroad after contractual disputes left him in doubt over his career in South Africa. With opportunities in France beckoning, the chance to play abroad wasn’t something he could ignore.
“If I had said no to a good opportunity in France I would probably have regretted it,” says Kruger.
The existence of an existing community of SA rugby players plus the advantage of today’s social networking and communication technologies enable them to remain connected with their family and friends, which helps to facilitate the steady stream of rugby talent to places in Europe.
“SA rugby players are a great fit for the European rugby environment because, quite frankly, they produce some of the world’s best players. And they do so in high numbers,” says Steve White-Cooper, founder of add-victor, a specialist recruitment agency for elite athletes and military veterans transitioning into finance and banking careers.
White-Cooper himself is South African-born and made the move to Europe, where he had a distinguished career for Harlequins and earned two international caps for England.
SA rugby players making more money in Europe
Perhaps the biggest draw card for SA rugby players is the fact that they are offered big money in Europe.
“There’s a lot more money in rugby here; the boys are much better paid,” says van de Merwe. “They are also much better protected in terms of health insurance - if you get injured or lose your job, you (and your family) are better protected.”
SA rugby players can make twice if not three times the money in Europe, which is due in part to a weaker Rand but also because there is more support and sponsorship for the sport.
For example, after moving to Toulon, France, legendary Springbok wing Bryan Habana was named the ninth richest player in the game by The Telegraph in 2016.
This is also assisted by an appealing French culture and career prospects after playing days are over.
“The rugby culture in France - the mind-set, competition, approach to play conditioning, and the atmosphere - is quite different to South Africa but most of the guys enjoy it. The French are notorious for maintaining a good balance in life - between work and play - which is good for rugby as well,” says van der Merwe.
Life after sports: The transition from the field to the office
A prevalent trend within professional sports is the transition of athletes from the field to the corporate environment subsequent to retirement. This is unsurprising when you consider that grit, determination, self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, and focus - ironically, called “soft skills” - are most often the hallmarks of success. These are the skills that professional sportsmen and women learn on the field and practice every day of their sporting careers.
“The reason why professional rugby players - or any athlete for that matter - tend to transition so successfully to the realm of business, finance, or banking is because a career in sport nurtures and hones particular, specialist skills that cannot be learned in any university or academic institution,” says White-Cooper.
Advice for young SA rugby players
A lot of professional sports players have no clue what they’ll do after retirement, which typically happens in the mid-30s, leaving more than half a lifetime with a big question mark. But, with professional athletes being so well suited to the highly competitive realm of business, there are ample opportunities for ex-rugby players.
Preparation, however, should start early, according to Kruger who studied business at university: “You’ve got to study while you’re young. Don’t neglect your academic training for your physical training. Put in those two or three years and get your degree so that you can create a life for yourself after sport.”
Kruger has been playing in France for going on six years, and has already set up several small businesses locally.
“Engage with every person you meet through your sport and build relationships because it’s through these connections that you could find yourself meeting your best friend, building a network of contacts, and discovering the opportunities that could lead to a successful business,” concludes Kruger.
White-Cooper agrees: “One of the best things a young SA rugby player looking for a smooth transition into a career in banking or finance is get qualified, and always look for opportunities to network. There are plenty out there.”