Springbok policy under threat

Bryan Habana (Gallo)
Bryan Habana (Gallo)

Johannesburg - The South African Rugby Union’s policy of favouring local players over overseas-based stars is under threat, especially when the Springboks name their squad for the Rugby Championship at the end of the week.

According to the supersport.com website, SARU has been firm that there has been no change in the policy regarding players based overseas, but a recent exodus in Boks stars may make that policy shift when the Bok squad is chosen for the November tour of Europe.

Currently Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer simply has no option but to choose a large contingent of players who are heading overseas this week when he picks his Bok squad to face the might of the Southern Hemisphere in the annual clashes.

The change in tack from clubs particularly in Japan and France means that South African Bok stars are now prime targets and no longer are players leaving in their twilight years, but are now willing to take the risk of losing out on making the national team in order to be part of the riches that are on offer.

This makes it increasingly difficult for Meyer, who would prefer to pick locally-based players for a number of logistical and other reasons but will need to decide what road he will follow in the near future.

A quick scan of the last Bok match 23 shows at least seven of the team - and six in the starting line-up - have now taken up offers overseas and while Meyer may have no option but to choose these players now, the reality is that it is fast becoming a sticking point in the road ahead.

The most obvious reason why Meyer won’t be leaving those heading overseas out of his squad is simple - it would be suicide to do so, especially as many of the current Boks heading abroad are still the best in their positions and don’t have a natural successor waiting in the wings.

Meyer has always maintained he would only go overseas if there are no better options locally, but the move will certainly put this theory to the test.

While in some cases - such as Zane Kirchner’s move to Leinster in Ireland, there are other options such as Willie le Roux and Gio Aplon - in others there simply isn’t the luxury of swapping like for like, or for better in that manner.

With Andries Bekker and JP Pietersen both in Japan and unavailable for the Rugby Championship, the situation is confounded even more and makes logistical necessities like training camps during the season a nightmare for the Bok management.

Juandre Kruger is the only recognised test level No 5 in the country at the moment. While Franco van der Merwe has made the squad, Meyer’s moves to bring in Pieter-Steph du Toit and also play Flip van der Merwe at 5 both send a clear message that he is searching for a second option.

Bryan Habana still has no peer on the wing, and Bjorn Basson’s defensive frailties – including those on the weekend for the Bulls - in the Super Rugby semi-final will count against him. The other option in the June squad, Lwazi Mvovo has had a quiet season as well.

Morne Steyn is still by far the best flyhalf option at the moment with Pat Lambie waiting behind him, but Lambie’s poor form with the Sharks this season has also been a worry. Johan Goosen is still some way off fitness for international level while Elton Jantjies has fallen further back in the queue with a series of uninspiring performances for the Stormers this year.

At halfback Ruan Pienaar and Jano Vermaak are both based overseas now, and considering Francois Hougaard’s form problems, other than Piet van Zyl there are not many other viable options for test rugby at the moment. Pienaar has also proved to be a valuable servant and one of two Boks regularly overseas so he is also likely to continue in the squad.

Francois Louw certainly has no peer at the moment and with Duanne Vermeulen fit again, is likely to resume battle in the starting line-up, while continuing to press ahead his claims as a future Bok captain.

The other Bok heading overseas is Chiliboy Ralepelle, who will not be missed as much thanks to the form of Adriaan Strauss and Bismarck du Plessis. But whether Ralepelle, who is still an excellent hooker, will be in the squad as time rolls on waits to be seen.

And on the fringes, the decision by Robert Ebersohn to move to Montpellier shows it isn’t just the top tier of players that are being chased, the second tier is also targeted on a regular basis.

Should the Bok coach decide to continue the current policy, the Bok team for the November tour will look very different indeed - especially if Pietersen and Bekker’s names are added to this list.

Either way the tipping point has been reached and while the Bok management and SARU will play it down for the moment, the exodus will become a massive reality as the season goes on.

Technically these Bok stars are still seen as local as they have not played for their new clubs just yet, but things may look a bit different in November.

The Bok squad is scheduled to be chosen by the end of the week, with the team assembling next week in Johannesburg to being their preparations for the Rugby Championship.

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