Boks and playing overseas ?

It was not that long ago that former Springbok coach Jake White made a sage remark about the South African Rugby Union’s decision to pick overseas players for the Springboks.

“You are making a rod for your own backs,” White warned the governing body. “This is going to come back and bite you.”

Saru, who for so long had been accused of being conservative, had actually been quite chuffed with themselves by breaking ranks with SANZAR colleagues Australia and New Zealand and giving coach Heyneke Meyer the option of picking our best players, wherever they reside. After all, professional soccer has been doing this for over a hundred years.

Australia have subsequently “half” followed the Saru lead by making elligble for the Wallabies players that have 60 or more caps. New Zealand, the best rugby country on the planet, stand firm.

White’s warning was that the best players would not hang around in South Africa for the traditional old golden handshake before finishing off with a swansong at a European club. Heck, rugby is a business and money has to be made while the body permits it.

And the players going to the likes of Japan are getting younger and younger. Last year Handre Pollard was the IRB Under 20 Player of the Championship. Now is he off to Japan.

Handre Pollard is tackled by Richie McCaw

You can’t blame the players. Once they have made enough of an impression on the national coach, off they go, knowing that the Springbok door is open.

The problem is that the flood of players to Japan – a choice option because their season allows the South Africans to (almost) get back in time for Super Rugby- means less classy players in the Currie Cup, our most important nursery of Springbok talent.

And if you go to Japan in your off-season, then, well, when do you have your off season!?

There is a tongue-in-cheek argument that rugby in Japan is sub-standard, and foreigners are restricted in their game time to give locals opportunities, and that gives the players a break from the intensity of Super Rugby. But it is a flimsy argument.

I recall John Plumtree complaining about how unfit his Japanese contingent were when they reported for Super Rugby duty, requiring a month of intense extra fitness training to get up to speed with the rest of the squad.

Three months of pre-season training with a South African Super Rugby franchise cannot begin to compete with relative loafing in Japan.

And then there is the problem of when the players actually arrive. The Japanese club knock-out competition takes place in February and that can sometimes mean a South Africa player misses up to four rounds of Super Rugby. He is not as fit as the other players, has missed the pre-season strategy sessions, and some crucial matches.

And there are going to be more and more of them arriving home late for Super Rugby. In fact a whole Cheetahs team following their agreement with Toyota.

There was recent talk that Andries Bekker might make a return to the Springboks after a three year stay in Japan and after having played no Super Rugby to keep up to scratch. Would he still be the same player after having not played against the best players in the world for so long? Jaque Fourie is to return to the Boks after four years in Japan, also having taken the long-term option of not returning for Super Rugby action. Can he possibly be a better player after four years of playing in a mediocre competition?

New Zealand, meanwhile, are resolute. Their best players remain in New Zealand to compete for the black jersey. Their Super Rugby teams remain the best, their National Provincial Championship is as strong as ever. They are the world champions.

Need we say any more on the subject?

by Mike Greenaway

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