No winner in SARU's half-cocked overseas policy

Mark Keohane (File)
Mark Keohane (File)

The only way to tug at the heart strings of a young South African rugby player and force him to choose the potential of Springboks selection instead of the lucrative club scene is to limit the 2019 World Cup squad to only local based players.

For the record, I am totally opposed to putting any restriction on player selection for the Springboks. My Sport24 column of a few weeks ago was emphatic that those who play overseas have not betrayed South African rugby in any way. To accuse them of lacking patriotism is also very ignorant.

My view remains that for the Springboks to be a top-three rugby nation and to once again be ranked higher than the likes of Scotland every selection option should be available to the national coach.

It is then up to this coach to select the players and be accountable to his selections and results.

The South African Rugby Union cannot compete with overseas currency or club offers. It will only get worse.

To blame a player for turning down an overseas contract that pays between three and five times more than he would receive in South Africa is unfair.

But SARU’s supposedly tough stance on the issue of overseas-based players is half-cocked and a cop out because the national coach is allowed to select any overseas-based player in World Cup year.

The leadership wants to be perceived as doing something by limiting Springbok selection in between World Cup years to locally based players or overseas based players with 30-plus Springbok appearances.

SARU’s leadership would like to think they’ve taken a hard stance on those young players entertaining overseas contracts. At least that’s what they want the public to think.

But nothing could be more distorted.

SARU President Mark Alexander, in a press statement, emphasised the decision to exclude any overseas-based Springbok with less than 30 Test caps was made in the best interests of the Springboks.

Alexander, speaking on behalf of the game’s leadership, said this would make the best young players think twice about giving up a Test career in favour of a club career.

And then in the next breath the leadership gave the player the best of both worlds by insisting that in World Cup year (2019) the player’s home base would not be a factor.

The player will be the beneficiary in World Cup year and the Springboks - and South African Rugby in general - will be the loser in the years between World Cups.

The player who is good enough for a top overseas club contract and warrant Springbok selection on form and pedigree will take the overseas contract and back himself to play for the Springboks in World Cup Year.

Where is the benefit in this decision?

There isn’t one because in the South African Rugby context there isn’t a solution to the overseas player drain unless there is a restructuring of South African Rugby that mirrors the famed New Zealand Rugby Union’s blueprint of national contracts and national ownership of the players.

Comparisons can’t be made between South Africa and New Zealand’s local and overseas-based situation because the contracting models are different and the game in New Zealand is designed to put the All Blacks first and the regions and provinces as the feeder to the strength of the All Blacks.

In South Africa, each of the 14 provinces has an agenda that isn’t about the Springboks but about the respective province.

It’s an amateur structure that has no place in professionalism. SARU, as an entity, does not control the players but the 14 provincial unions who make up SARU control their interest in the player.

And that’s the problem that needed addressing. Fix that, restructure that and then talk about putting the Springboks first.

Which young player, good enough to attract overseas interest, would turn down the opportunity to play in Europe. He gets job security, minimal travel and a cultural and rugby education. If he hasn’t played for the Springboks he also has the opportunity to be a Test player for his adopted home.

It is public knowledge that the transformation numbers for the Springboks state that by 2019 half the match day squad has to be black and that eight of the 15 starting XV have to be black.

Again, why would a white young player give up a lucrative club contract and the chance to play Test rugby for another country when the dice in South Africa is already loaded with selection restrictions and an inferior currency?

He wouldn’t.

New Zealand has a blanket rule: To play for the All Blacks you have to be playing in New Zealand. But they have the right contracting system and those who have stayed to play have a 90% winning record and two successive World Cup wins and three of the last four Rugby Championship titles.

South Africa, when picking locally based players, lost to Wales and drew with the Barbarians, have a win percentage closer to 50 percent than the historic 63 percent and have won nothing.

The South African professional system does not invest in the player as the game’s asset, which is why close to 300 South Africans play professional rugby outside of South Africa and 15 of those players represented other countries at the 2015 World Cup.

New Zealand has 600 professional players off-shore and 38 played for other countries in the 2015 World Cup.

But the New Zealand Rugby Union pays the salary of the top 150 players and that is why they retain the core of their best players.

The evil in South African Rugby is not the highly paid overseas-based South African players but the locally based 14 provincial paymasters.

Until the system changes in South Africa, nothing else will. Very good players will still leave and the Springboks will still struggle.

Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24. 

Previous Mark Keohane columns on Sport24:

Keeping Coetzee sadly no April Fools' joke

Mediocrity must fall!

Overseas based SA players are no traitors!

Sick Boks need more than a new doctor

Joost earned more than a minute's silence

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