The exodus of South African players to the northern hemisphere will be powerfully brought home as the teams line up for Saturday’s Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.
The showpiece of European club rugby will be contested by England’s Saracens and France’s Toulon in what could well be dubbed the Springbok Final, given the number of South Africans in both sides.
Both clubs were also involved in the English Premiership and the French Top?14 semifinals which took place this weekend, but given an injury-free run, as many as 16 South Africans, some with an English rather than a Springbok pedigree, could be involved in the Heineken Cup Final.(Live on SuperSport SHD6 & SS6 from 17.30 on May 24).
At Saracens, the South African influence is so strong, the club is often referred to as the “SarraBoks.”
Springboks Schalk Brits, Neil de Kock and Alistair Hargreaves are on the team?sheet along with Ernst Joubert, Justin Melck, Petrus du Plessis, Nick Fenton-Wells and Namibian international Jacques Burger, while expats Brad Barritt and Mouritz Botha sought a home at Allianz Park in Hendon and won England caps.
In addition, South African businessman Johann Rupert’s Remgro company owns 50% of Saracens while his daughter Caroline and former Springbok captains Morné du Plessis and Francois Pienaar are directors.
John Smit ended his playing career with Sarries before becoming CEO of the Sharks.
For defending champions Toulon, Bryan Habana will be hoping to emulate team-mate Danie Rossouw by adding a Heineken Cup medal to the World Cup, Tri-Nations, Super Rugby and Currie Cup gongs already in his trophy cabinet.
Other South Africans now making a home in the Mediterranean port are Juan Smith, Craig Burden, Michael Claassens and Joe van Niekerk, and there might have been an even bigger presence had Bakkies Botha not suffered a serious injury.
The migration of so many top players represents a double-edged sword for South African rugby.
On the one hand, it confirms the quality of players produced in this country but on the other, the lure of the pound, the franc and the euro is a massive problem for national coach Heyneke Meyer as he tries to manage
a Springbok squad with so many key players no longer playing in the Super Rugby competition.
Apart from the Heineken Cup, the final of Europe’s subsidiary competition, the Amlin Challenge Cup, will also be played in Cardiff on Saturday (immediately after the main final) and another of Meyer’s front line Boks, flanker Francois Louw, could be in action for Bath against the Northampton Saints.
In France, the likes of Juandré Kruger and Rory Kockott, along with a good number of other South Africans in Jacques Cronjé, Francois van der
Merwe, Bernard Le Roux, Antonie Claassen and Pedrie Wannenburg turned out for Castres and Racing Metro in this weekend’s Top?14 semifinals.
Castres scrum half Kockott, the form number nine in French rugby this season, is in the spotlight because he becomes eligible for France in August and could thus become another to fly the coop for good.
Interestingly, Kockott has been included in Nick Mallett’s World XV to play the Springboks at Newlands in the opening international of the year on June 7 – a clear indication that Meyer wants to take a good look at a player who has matured in France and includes excellent goalkicking on his CV.