As long as the global market allows for fair exchanges in international talent, the ‘player drain’ will continue to change the competitive nature of the game in its professional era. Is rugby going football?
Europe’s champagne tournament finally kicked off this weekend, boasting sides with reams of international signings and playing a notably different style of rugby. Nonetheless, the Heineken Cup has a unique aura which any discerning (or cynical) rugby follower can’t help warming to.
Apart from a tasty Currie Cup final ahead, the next three weeks sees one of the few significant and unwelcome breaks in the rugby calendar – at least as far as South Africans are concerned.
Fortunately for us, the irrepressible king of sports broadcasters has pocked the weighty weekend line-up with live coverage of some top Euro clashes – and the Tigers v Ospreys match on Sunday had me intrigued from start to finish.
I came back from a two-year stint in the UK in 2006 and realised I had committed one of the working-traveler’s cardinal sins – I never once attended a live club rugby match. I suppose watching the Boks whip the Welsh at the Millennium Stadium the year before had ticked the ‘live sport’ box on my British bucket list. Isn’t hindsight a bugger though.
The Leicester Tigers now have an impressive club cabinet – boasting among other feats, four Premiership titles as well as back-to-back Heineken Cup crowns. They’ve also been the breeding ground of several English stars, including England and two-time British and Irish Lions captain, Martin Johnson.
But for us ‘Saffas’, in relative terms, the Tigers have become synonymous with two new venerable individuals – ‘the coach that got away’, and our ‘Liefling van Loftus’.
Derick Hougaard earned just his second run in the green Tiger stripe on Sunday, replacing an embattled Toby Flood at flyhalf in the 58th minute – the latter England international looking mightily impressive all game with angled charges and a flawless kicking display.
The prospect of finally seeing the Bulls maestro in Euro action though perked me out of my horizontal vantage point (a slightly subdued one at that after two Café Olympia pastries) and got me cheering along with the Welford Road faithful.
The reasons for my renewed fan fervor are pretty obvious I thought – I wanted to see him hit the ground running with boot and brawn and show the Brits that although money can buy you Southern flare, you don’t have it.
Hougaard (or ‘Hou – haa’ as it was pronounced by the gutturally-challenged Anglo-Welsh commentators) is just one of SA’s talented rugby ‘Diaspora’ that have chosen to further their careers abroad; whether it be the lure of privately remunerated contracts or the sheer experience of testing a different playing field.
Whatever the reasons, the ‘player drain’ is hitting the Southern Hemisphere at a rate of knots. Depending on which side of the fence you sit, it can be a good or a bad thing for international and club rugby alike.
Springbok Test centurion and all-time record points-holder, Percy Montgomery, is a perfect example of the benefits of a Euro trip. After some inconsistent form on the provincial and international circuit, Percy headed into the Welsh wilderness in 2002 to play two seasons for Newport.
Upon a Jake White recall however, Montgomery returned the ultimate polished player – starting by earning honours as the highest points-scorer in the 2004 Tri-Nations. And the rest is history.
The policy eventually endorsed by SA rugby, that allows foreign-based players to play for their country of origin, is not however shared by the likes of New Zealand.
With only locally-based players deemed eligible for the All Blacks, the NZRU has been dented by a plethora of high profile players leaving Kiwi shores for cash-laden overseas clubs – with Chris Jack, Carl Haymen, Luke McAllister and Mose Tuiali’i to name but a few. Nonetheless, the All Blacks were still able to secure their fourth consecutive Tri-Nations title this year, with interest.
Furthermore, Australia’s recent relaxation policy on foreign players taking part in the Super 14 saw All Black Daniel Braid sign for the Queensland Reds for their 2009 campaign – which logistically, could see the start of a trans-Tasman Super force.
While ‘secret socks’ Wallaby veteran Chris Latham is already making a name for himself at Worcester, and Byron Kelleher an engrained performer for three-time European champions Toulouse, the mass influx of Southern internationals could potentially damage the European club scene as well.
For example, there is a relatively small number of French-qualified props playing in the Top 14, whilst England has a similar problem at flyhalf, with players like Hougaard and Butch pushing out local choices at No.10. This in turn could have an adverse effect on Test rugby, with a delayed transition as far as player combinations and structures are concerned.
Back on the home front, as we all know, SA rugby has its own selection nuances which have prompted ‘overlooked’ players to seek Northern pastures. I dread the day when Brad Barritt breaks the Boks’ advantage line, pops the ball to Matthew Turner to dash in for an England try, while Fat Stevens looks on from the pie stand.
Hopefully that day will never happen, and a recent conversation with John Plumtree also helped me sleep a little easier. As far as the Sharks’ Kiwi boss is concerned, South Africa has the deepest pool of player talent of any rugby nation in the world. As long as we manage to avoid any drive-by pukings, our Green jerseys should continue to claim reverence on the world stage.
By Nick Pawson of Rugby 365Tweet