Mind Games: Marching to the beat of a different drummer

2014-04-28 10:00

That two of the biggest names in rugby, Bryan Habana and Jonny Wilkinson, will today be at the forefront of a major event that has nothing to do with their respective countries says a lot about rugby’s changing face.

The names of Habana and Wilkinson are already enshrined in the annals of South African and English rugby history, respectively, but today they will be marching to the beat of a different drummer.

Instead of the colours in which they became famous, they will be in red. Any glory they achieve will accrue to a foreign master and their reward will be purely financial.

Habana and Wilkinson will turn out for their French club Toulon against Irish club Munster in Marseille in the second semifinal of the Heineken Cup, European rugby’s biggest interclub competition. (The match will be broadcast live on SuperSport from 4.20pm.)

They are members of a veritable French foreign legion that illustrates the insidious creep of professionalism that threatens to overtake and wipe out the structure of rugby as we know it.

Apart from the injured Bakkies Botha, Toulon have in their ranks another South African World Cup winner in Juan Smith as well as Craig Burden, Michael Claassens, Danie Rossouw and Joe van Niekerk.

Their squad also includes All Blacks Carl Hayman and Ali Williams, Wallabies Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, England’s Andrew Sheridan, Italy’s Martin Castrogiovanni and Argentina’s Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe.

This team was assembled by club president Mourad Boudjellal with the express purpose of dominating French club rugby and winning competitions.

Munster can call only on the likes of Springbok BJ Botha, former Bulls and Western Province wing Gerhard van Heerden as well

as Kiwi Casey Laulala. But this foreign phenomenon was as marked in the first semifinal between Saracens and Clermont-Auvergne, which was played in London yesterday.

Saracens have so many South Africans on their books, they’ve been nicknamed the “SaraBoks”.

In reaching the last four, Saracens could look to a swathe of South Africans – Brad Barritt, Mouritz Botha, Schalk Brits, Neil de Kock, Petrus du Plessis, Nick Fenton-Wells, Alistair Hargreaves, Ernst Joubert and Justin Melck.

Their French opposition had two South Africans, the relatively unknown Daniel Kötze and Gerhard Vosloo, but also All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu, Welshman Lee Byrne, Scotsman Nathan Hines and Australian Brock James.

Last year, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer was forced to include eight overseas-based players in his 23-man squad and the latest to join the migration, Lions lock Franco van der Merwe, follows hard on the heels of Jean Deysel, Keegan Daniel, Charl McLeod and Gio Aplon.

The award of the 2019 World Cup to Japan has opened a lucrative new market – to call it what it is – and players who either feel discarded or that they have reached the pinnacle of their international careers will be lured by the yen, the euro or the pound in ever greater numbers.

Local players have had enough of the taxing Super Rugby competition while there is little doubt that if a stringently race-based selection policy is enforced, those who are disadvantaged will be on the plane, too.

Each year, the SA Rugby Annual carries a list of South Africans playing abroad. Where would you put the current number: 50, 100, 150? It’s actually 235!

Whatever the reason – disenchantment, political interference or money – the day is not far off when test rugby will be usurped by the professional club game and many of the participants will have signed up a lot sooner than Habana or Wilkinson did.

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