Southern rugby’s export boom

29 June 2007

Springbok captain John Smit will be playing his rugby in France for the next two years, joining what could become an exodus of top South African rugby players to Europe. Judging by similar moves by Australian and New Zealand players, the game could be in for a shake-up after the World Cup in France.

Smit announced on Wednesday that he has accepted an offer to play for Cleremont Auvergne in 2008/09. Free State Cheetahs’ centre Marius Joubert is joining Smit there, while former Springbok Grant Esterhuizen is already on the club’s books.

“Representing the Springboks since my debut in 2000 and also playing for my beloved Sharks was a real dream come true for me and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them,” Smit said on the Sharks website. “However, the time has come to make a change and move on in my professional career.”

Smit’s decision notwithstanding, national coach Jake White, should he remain coach of the Springboks after the World Cup, has said he would still pick the hooker to captain the Boks. “Without a doubt, John’s ability to lead a team, coupled with his strength in the scrums and accuracy in the lineout, make him special,” White said.

Andy Marinos, the manager of South Africa’s national rugby teams, said Smit had consulted SA Rugby throughout the process and “we respect his decision”.

More international skippers
Smit might not be the only Springbok captain heading for France. Ambitious French second division side Toulon recently announced that Victor Matfield, who led South Africa against New Zealand in Durban recently, has been signed.

Matfield hasn’t yet confirmed the move. The French media, however, have quoted the lock as saying he has only a few loose ends to tie up and is committed to Toulon in principle.

Former All Black captain Tana Umaga is both a player and the club’s general manager. He’s been very active signing players, and apart from chasing Matfield – viewed by many as the best lineout forward in world rugby – Umaga has signed Australia’s George Gregan, the most capped player in test, former All Blacks flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens, and Anton Oliver who, like Umaga, has led New Zealand.

South Africans at Toulon
Toulon has a good number of South African players on its books, including Daniel Muller, Nicky Smit, Charl van Vliet, Nico Breedt, Norman Jordaan and Chris Rossouw, so it appears that settling settling in wouldn’t be a problem for Matfield.

The club’s most recently announced signing, prop Lawrence Sephaka, brings the number of South African players, excluding Matfield, to seven.

Toulon even has a South African coaching connection, with Tim Lane, who previously coached the Cats (now Lions) in Super Rugby and served as a Springbok assistant coach, in charge.

While Matfield is 30 and probably doesn’t have that many years left in his career, another Springbok star, Schalk Burger, has drawn the interest of France’s Toulouse and England’s NEC Harlequins, and he is just 24 years of age.

Currency issues
Naturally, South African rugby would rather not lose a young superstar to a northern hemisphere club, but it is an uphill battle for South Africa’s provinces and the SA Rugby Union – at current exchange rates the euro is worth close to R10, while the pound is worth over R14.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, for South Africa to match the money Europe can offer players of the stature of Smit, Matfield and Burger.

The list of players rumoured to be heading north doesn’t end there, however, and, if the number of New Zealanders and Australians also heading in that direction after the World Cup is any indication, a lot of South Africans will be joining them.

UK calling
Percy Montgomery, who previously had a stint in Wales with the Newport Gwent Dragons, has been linked with Perpignan, as has Bok winger Ashwin Willemse. Gerrie Britz has already signed a three-year contract with the club.

Springbok flyhalf Butch James has reportedly been approached by English club Bath, while 39-test veteran De Wet Barry recently signed a two-year contract with Harlequins.

Should a large number of frontline Springboks sign contracts with French and English clubs, there could be problems for SA rugby down the line.

One need only to look back on England’s recent tour of South Africa and France’s tour of New Zealand, where both touring teams were missing many top players because of club rugby commitments.

In both series, the southern hemisphere teams, at full strength, recorded record margins of victory over the northern hemisphere sides. South Africa thumped England 58-10 and 55-22, while the All Blacks hammered France 42-11 and 61-10.

World rugby shake-up?
Increasingly, countries are selecting teams for test matches that are not their strongest line-ups, but rather selections that are used to gauge whether players are potential World Cup players or not.

The rugby world could be in for a big shake-up after the World Cup in France, with more watering down of national teams a definite possibility.

An exodus of South African, New Zealand and Australian players could result in a weakened Tri-Nations competition; it could even end up with the southern hemisphere powers sending out third-string teams against the northern hemisphere.

When England tackled the Springboks recently, 30 top players were unavailable for selection, mostly because of club commitments. The shoe could soon be on the other foot.

SA players in Europe
Below is a list of South Africans who played club rugby in France or England this past season, or who are set to play in Europe next season (A * indicates players linked with a move to a club, ^ indicates players who have recently signed contracts).

Included in the list are a number of English, French, New Zealand and Welsh rugby internationals who were born and/or grew up in South Africa.

FRANCE

Stade Français
Pieter de Villiers (French international), Boela du Plooy, Brian Liebenberg (French international), Frans Viljoen

Toulouse
Daan Human, Gaffie du Toit

Cleremont Auvergne
Grant Esterhuizen, John Smit*, Marius Joubert*

Perpignan
Gavin Hume, Gerrie Britz*, Percy Montgomery^, Ashwin Willemse^

Bourgoin
Rudi Coetzee, Wessel Jooste

Montauban
Braam Immelman

Castres
Danie Saayman, Gerhard Vosloo

Brive
Vickus Liebenberg, Johan van Zyl, Hendrik Gerber, Charl van Rensburg

Montpellier
Drikus Hancke, Rickus Lubbe

Bayonne
Rob Linde, Jacques Deen, Sam Gerber, Eduard Coetzee

Narbonne
Henk Eksteen, Retief Uys, Tinus van Rensburg

Agen
Willem Stoltz, Adri Badenhorst, Pietman van Niekerk, Conrad Stoltz

Toulouse
Schalk Burger^

Toulon (Division Two)
Daniel Muller, Nicky Smit, Charl van Vliet, Nico Breedt, Norman Jordaan, Chris Rossouw, Victor Matfield^

ENGLAND

Gloucester
Rudi Keil, Jake Boer

Saracens
Cobus Visagie, Neil de Kock

London Irish
Mike Catt (England international), Danie Coetzee, Faan Rautenbach

NEC Harlequins
Stuart Abbott (England international), Hal Luscombe (Wales international), Andre Vos, Schalk Burger^

Bath
Pieter Dixon, Hottie Louw, Matt Stevens (England international), Michael Claassens, Butch James

Newcastle Falcons
Russell Winter

Worcester Warriors
Thinus Delport, Greg Rawlinson (New Zealand international)

Northampton Saints
Joe van Niekerk, Geoff Appleford (England international), Pat Barnard

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