Those South African rugby players excelling overseas are not sellouts to the game in South Africa. Nor are they traitors.
They have also betrayed no one and are being no less patriotic than the doctor, accountant and other working professional whose skills command top currency outside of South Africa.
Don’t be so quick and dismissive of the merits of those South African players abroad. Springbok rugby will suffer even more if that channel of selection is shut down.
The Springboks must represent the best South African rugby players on the planet. It shouldn’t matter where they are based. To be the best, we have to be selecting the best.
The reality is many of the best South African players are now based overseas.
We should also not confuse our situation with that of New Zealand’s.
The policy in New Zealand is not to pick foreign-based players, but the policy in New Zealand since the advent of professionalism has also included a national contracting system that puts country before region.
South Africa’s professional rugby has never had a national contracting system in place and regions/provinces dictate employment to the professional player base.
South Africa’s 14 professional provinces are financially challenged and the demands of professional payments and professionalism have translated into the majority being closer to bankrupt than financially buoyant.
New Zealand’s local dollar currency is also strong in comparison to the failing South African Rand. They can offer their best player competitive counters to anything in Europe, the United Kingdom or Japan.
They don’t lose the spine of their best All Blacks to overseas clubs, whereas South Africa's domestic game every year loses a core of first-choice Test selections.
Frans Steyn is an example of a player whose skills are so highly regarded that it would have made no business sense for him to refuse the many overseas offers since he won a World Cup as a 20-year-old.
Steyn’s talent is more appreciated abroad than in South Africa and he is one player who has never turned his back on South Africa. He has always wanted to be a Springbok. Some clubs, especially those in Japan, enforce players to give up their international careers for the high contract number. But that’s in the minority. The bulk of South Africans abroad have always committed to the Springboks as their first choice.
Players like Brad Barritt (England), Scott Spedding, Bernard le Roux, Rory Kockott (all France), Josh Strauss, WP Nel (Scotland) and Richardt Strauss and CJ Stander (Ireland) made a conscious decision that an oversees career move would also mean a change in international allegiance.
Those mentioned were either told they were not going to be selected for the Boks or improved dramatically as players post their South African feeder education.
Their decision to play for another country has to be respected.
Those who make it clear they want to be Springboks should not be punished because they command such high salaries abroad. Equally, there shouldn’t be a reward for those who stay simply because overseas clubs don’t regard them as highly.
Those within South Africa, be it the rugby media, the supporters or those who govern at provincial, regional and national level, should be mature enough to accept the reality of economics and the dramatic changing face of professional rugby.
All that should matter is having the best available for selection, which doesn’t always translate into selecting the player.
The Springboks have lost to Wales three times in 100 years, with two of those defeats in the last two visits to Cardiff. In both those instances South Africa picked only local based players.
The standard of our local professional game isn’t strong enough to disregard the claims of those outstanding South Africans starring in the French Top 14, the English Premiership, the Celtic Pro 12 and in the European 1st and 2nd Tier Premier knockout competitions.
All of those competitions are stronger than the Currie Cup and Super Rugby, with the latter’s playing strength integrity compromised through expansion from 12 to 18 teams.
There will always be difficulty in managing player-conditioning when a player is peaking at different times in the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere, but it’s only when the Boks lose that this is presented as an excuse. When they have won, as they did with a record score against Australia in Brisbane, then the overseas-based player presence (and conditioning) was not a negative.
The Boks, when playing in the World Cup, want to showcase the very best of South African rugby talent. That has to be the end goal. The season’s challenge is to manage and accommodate all player selection options.
The overseas-based player issue is always seen as a negative to our rugby when a different approach can turn it into a positive that gives the national coach every option to make the Boks a top three team.
There should be regular Bok training squads for those based in the Northern Hemisphere, just as there are for those based in South Africa. This gives the coach an opportunity to work with two groups of players and also allows for greater management of his playing resource.
For example, the Rugby Championship selection could come primarily from those players based in South Africa and the November Tests could reward those South African players up north, with the June internationals and World Cup squads being the best of the best from players in the north and south.
Why force a choice in one or the other when our national team can benefit from both playing resources?
It’s about finding a solution that rewards our rugby and our best rugby players and doesn’t punish them or weaken the Springboks.
Picking foreign-based players is a decision that must be influenced through player potency and pragmatism and not through the misguided notion that patriotism - and subsequent Bok reward - is exclusive to players based in South Africa.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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