Opinion: Can South African rugby combat player drain, or is it a losing battle?

Craig Lewis

At one time or another, often like clockwork every year, an age-old debate central to South African rugby kicks off. Invariably, the topic revolves around the litany of overseas-based players and whether anything can be done to stem the tide of departures from South African shores.

The financial temptations come from far and wide, with European and English clubs often finding the South African market to be a rewarding and happy hunting ground.

Money talks at a time when the current exchange rate certainly does no favours to SA Rugby stakeholders attempting to hold onto their most prized assets with purse strings stretched to capacity.

Perhaps, though, the biggest threat now comes from Japan. Cash-flush clubs from that part of the world are increasingly tabling “life-changing” offers for foreign recruits, primarily targeting the best of the best on the international scene. Many Japan teams have set out to have leading Springbok stars on their books to bolster both their performance and club status at a time when the reigning World Cup champions remain the number one team in the game.

Over 200 South Africans playing abroad

At the latest count, well over 200 South African professionals are currently plying their trade at various overseas clubs, while more than half of the recent Springbok squad was made up of players based abroad. It comes at a time when the global rugby landscape has changed dramatically since the Covid-19 pandemic threw the world off its axis.

South Africa‘s four leading franchises have made their first foray into northern hemisphere competition through the newly-formed United Rugby Championship, with the South African sides also set to be eligible to qualify for the Champions Cup from the 2022/23 season. A new competition that dangles the considerable carrot of a Champions Cup berth does present a new incentive of sorts for URC players at the Sharks, Stormers, Bulls and Lions.

For one, ambitious Sharks CEO Eduard Coetzee has already made it clear that the Durban-based franchise will target the ultimate prize in due course.

“We do not just want to survive and rebuild all the time,” Coetzee commented. “MVM Holdings (the American consortium that has acquired a majority share in the Sharks) has given us faith in how far we can go, and they have the attitude that we must strive to be the best. With this in mind, we do want to win the Heineken Cup eventually, and I do not say that arrogantly. It is just part of our vision.”

With the backing of private investors, the Sharks have boldly recruited the likes of Bongi Mbonambi, Siya Kolisi, Ben Tapuai and Tito Bonilla, while they are hoping to add a few more signings by the end of the year.

As a team filled with Springboks, though, the Sharks are only too aware of the temptations posed by big-money overseas offers. In the middle of 2020, Makazole Mapimpi was reported to have turned down a staggering multi-million rand offer to join Japanese club NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, instead opting to head over for just a short-term “sabbatical”.

Fellow Springbok Lukhanyo Am is also said to have been in the crosshairs of Japan recruiters, with some reports suggesting his offer amounted to around R17-million a year.

“Currently, Japan poses the biggest threat to South African teams, as they only go for top players,” Coetzee believes. “More and more, they aren’t interested in just short-term contracts, they want high-profile players to join them for the long haul.”

In order to combat such ‘threats’, the Sharks have launched a Players First Programme, aimed at providing various opportunities and support to holistically prepare players for life after rugby. It was a factor that Mbonambi has confirmed played a big role in his decision to join the Sharks.

Legendary former Springbok and Sharks prop Beast Mtawarira believes that South African players need to be encouraged to take a long-term view when weighing up whether to stay or go.

“I had a few offers (during my career), especially from French clubs,” he said. “There were big (cash) carrots, but I wanted to create something special here at home. That money (from the European and Japanese clubs) only lasts you so long. I wanted to look at generational wealth and how I could build an empire, whether that be through business contacts or other avenues. I believe that as a Springbok you can build something special for yourself here in South Africa and you must do it while you are playing.”

The pandemic has also changed the playing field to some degree for European clubs that are now running on tighter budgets and with some salary caps having been trimmed down.

Roc Nation President Michael Yormark, who is an outspoken advocate for the potential of the URC to “change the game”, believes the South African rugby market may begin to see a decline in the amounts of lucrative offers on the table.

“Why would a club pay a high salary for a top player and only have him (available) 50 percent of the time if he’s away with his national side. For clubs in France that are having the salary cap decreasing, that makes no sense. They may still invest, but I don’t think they will invest in as many players or as much.”

Bulls coach Jake White, who has of course been at the helm of the Springboks before, has been one of the most outspoken local coaches in asserting a discussion is needed around the national policy of openly selecting overseas-based players.

Having seen talismanic front rower Trevor Nyakane lured to France on a big-money deal from Racing 92, White has gone so far as to suggest that South African franchises are running the risk of “basically becoming academies for overseas clubs”.

“What has to be looked at going forward, as a franchise coach, is overseas players being picked for South Africa. Is that going to be forever? Because it’s going to be to the detriment of franchise rugby. That’s a fact,” White commented. “The Irish and New Zealand model has a strict no overseas-based players rule. I’m wearing my franchise hat here and I don’t know what the answer is. If you only get top players for a limited amount of games (due to national duty), is it worth keeping them? I’m not so sure.

“The current return on investment doesn’t allow you the luxury of having such players on the books as well as having a salary cap in place. We’re not as adversely affected, but imagine sides like the Stormers and Sharks with all their Boks. It’s a completely different situation. I’d like to hear their views.”

Stormers coach John Dobson, who has needed to use all his negotiating and man-management skills to keep several high-profile players in the Cape has previously suggested that playing in the northern hemisphere and against teams in Europe does have the dangerous side-effect of opening South Africa up as a “shop window” to overseas clubs.

Speaking after the Stormers’ 20-10 win over the Springbok-laden Sharks in Cape Town recently, Dobson said the big offers coming from Europe remains a massive challenge.

“You have already read about the massive offers for Warrick (Gelant),” Dobson acknowledged in reference to a reported Racing 92 offer in the region of €450,000 (more than R7-million) per season. “It is not about game time or opportunity… It is going to be a struggle to compete (financially). The Cheetahs, after their first year in the PRO14, lost 13 players. Every day there are offers for our players. It is just how it is. It is the world we live in. It is tough.”

Recent reports have also suggested that the Lions could face another “exodus” of players when the current contract cycle comes to an end in October, with senior centres Wandisile Simelane and Burger Odendaal apparently in the sights of European clubs.

The challenges facing South African teams comes against the backdrop of massive budget cuts made last year to keep SA Rugby afloat in the midst of the pandemic, while funding to the four URC franchises – who reportedly suffered a combined loss of R250-million in the past two years – was said to have been slashed by at least R16-million each.

It’s led to calls for the South African government to even step up and provide some financial assistance, while increasingly it appears that private ownership is the only way to go.

There is clearly no overnight solution to this subject that is so central to SA rugby, but it does paint a vivid picture of the challenges faced by franchises to make ends meet while also retaining competitive squads.

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