South Africa's rugby mercenaries

The last Heineken Cup has finished and the nation that contributed perhaps most to the final will receive no plaudits.

    Toulon currently employ seven South African internationals in their squad [Getty Images]
    Toulon currently employ seven South African internationals in their squad [Getty Images]

    The showpiece event of European rugby was contested by a French team and an English team on Welsh soil at the magnificent Millennium Stadium.

    All three countries played their part in a magnificent display of rugby. But there is one nation that arguably had the greatest effect on the match yet received no accolades on the night - South Africa.

    Toulon's match-day squad boasted six Springboks (four with world cup winners’ medals) while Saracens fielded three players from South Africa and three more who have switched allegiance to England.

    These twelve players have chosen exile and the lure of European currencies over donning the green and gold of their country. France is a particularly popular destination as the salary cap per club is much higher than anwhere else in Europe at $13m. In some instances, French clubs can treble a South African's salary at home.

    Playing abroad provides a wonderful opportunity to test yourself as a person as well as a rugby player.

    Breyton Paulse, Ex-South Africa rugby player

    Ex-Springbok winger Breyton Paulse, who won 64 caps for his country and finished his career in France, believes the incentives of playing abroad are far greater than a bigger bank balance.

    “Playing abroad provides a wonderful opportunity to test yourself as a person as well as a rugby player,” Paulse told Al Jazeera. “The language barrier in France can prove a big stumbling block but if you are able to embrace the new culture, like Joe van Niekerk at Toulon, the French will respect you and regard you as a hero in their town.”

    The two other southern hemisphere giants in the Wallabies and the All Blacks have strict rules in place that any player who plies their trade away from their homeland, will not be eligible under any circumstance for international honours.

    However, South Africans may still be picked to represent their country despite being based away from home. In the Heineken Cup final, for example, Toulon’s Bryan Habana is still a mainstay of the Springbok backline and, if he stays fit, he will be the first-choice winger until the 2015 World Cup at least.

    Japan-based World Cup winners Fourie du Preez and Jaques Fourie, Francois Louw of Bath and Habana’s Toulon teammate Bakkies Botha are just a few examples of other players who are also making the most of their opportunity to keep representing their nation from abroad.

    In some instances players have had their floundering careers rejuvenated by a stint overseas. For example the famous golden locks of Percy Montgomery graced the pitches of Newport in Wales for four years before he returned to spear-head the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup-winning side.

    Risks of playing abroad 

    But there is a risk for these individuals. South Africa straight-talking coach Heyneke Meyer has made no secret of the fact that he will show preference to home-based players.

    There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, Meyer will have more control over these players and can ensure their availability for national duty. There is a notoriously frosty relationship between many overseas-based players’ home unions and the clubs paying their handsome salaries when international and domestic fixtures clash.

    Secondly, Super 15 (the southern hemisphere's equivalent of the Heineken Cup) clubs play a style of rugby closer to the national team's game-plan and intensity. Consequently these players need less time to adjust to the national playing-systems when training camps begin.

    South African players abroad
     League                         Players
    Top 14 (Fra)                        55
    Pro 12 (Wal, Ire, Sco, Ita)     21
    Premiership (Eng)                17

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Meyer will give preference the home-based players in order to protect the domestic playing-standard. When more established players move to pastures new, the younger players are given an opportunity to shine but Paulse fears that the gap in experience will become harder to fill.

    “People in South Africa are worried that the younger players picked to replace players who move away are being promoted to their clubs’ first teams too soon,” he said. “These players need time to settle and in some instances do not have the necessary experience to fulfil these roles.”

    In Australia, rugby union is only the fourth most popular sport in the country and as such, the pool of talent to pick for the national team is a lot smaller than a country like South Africa. Their rigid policy of picking only home-based players exists in order to keep that small but highly-talented pool of players in their domestic game.

    In New Zealand the rugby-obsessed public believes that the shirt is cheapened if overseas-players are picked. A mantra that has seen their team dominate the game for most of the past decade.

    South Africa's future

    With such a huge pool of talent in South Africa the players heading overseas in search of increased playing opportunities and higher salaries are becoming younger age and not simply collecting their proverbial pensions.

    In the European final Giteau’s opposite number Brad Barritt left Natal for North London at such a young age, that he was able to repatriate and switch his allegiance to England instead.

    Clearly the abundance of players leaving South Africa’s shores is a concern for the national team. But while the Springbok's remain one of the most successful teams in the world, the lure of national pride will, for now, conquer Europe's cheque books.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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