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Is local the most lekker?

Jake White. Gallo Images.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas. The start of the international rugby season. Before long, we’ll be screaming ourselves hoarse as we support the Springboks at the stadium, in pubs, at braais, or in our lounges all across the country.

But even before that comes the small matter of Jacques Nienaber's announcement of the team. Something which always stirs up a lot of debate. Someone who always has a lot to say on most topics is Jake White – the sentiment usually depends on whether his team is winning or losing, which I suppose is the same for most of us. Of late, he’s had plenty to say about whether or not the Springbok coaches should be selecting overseas-based players. Needless to say, he’s not in favour of it, and was vocal on the subject once again after the Bulls lost the URC final, and face the loss of a few key players to overseas contracts too. In a way, I can see where he’s coming from – the drain on South Africa’s rugby talent as they depart for more lucrative shores has massive consequences for coaches at the local franchises. And the fact that playing overseas no longer precludes them from being selected for the Springboks has, in theory anyway, accelerated the player exodus. So, I do understand his thinking that if players were forced to stay in South Africa in order to be considered for that prestigious green and gold jersey, there would be less of a challenge to keep them at their local franchises. I’m just not sure it’s entirely realistic, or fair.

There’s a part of me that smiles a little at the hint of hypocrisy in Jake’s complaints – it’s not as if he hasn’t taken his opportunities abroad when they were offered. But that’s neither here nor there, really. The reality is, for players, rugby careers are incredibly short. Not everyone can finish playing and go on to be a coach or a punt-it. And then what? Who can genuinely blame players for wanting to make as much money as possible in the short time they have available to them? It’s not greed. It’s survival. So, should that quest to forge a successful career mean a player is not eligible to play for the Boks? I tend to agree with Rassie Erasmus on this one (as I usually do, let’s face it) – let’s pick the players that are the best, regardless of where they’re based outside of the international season. And as he points out, in having so many players earning their keep in other countries, SA Rugby’s salary bill is dramatically reduced, leaving more money available to build talent at the local level. While I sympathise with the plight of local coaches, do we want to jeopardise the success of the national team by placing restrictions on overseas players?

Of course, it’s not a simple situation. Having a huge number of players based overseas creates challenges when it comes to getting them released in time to prepare for Test matches. We’ve already seen how difficult some of the French clubs can be on this front, and now the English clubs seem to be joining that party, with players who were no longer involved in any games still being kept away from the Bok camp last week. Seems petty, but they’re within their rights to do it. Likewise, the last game of the year, which falls outside the international window, will likely have to be played with only locally-based players.

Eben Etzebeth. Getty Images.

In an ideal world, perhaps all of this will eventually become less of an issue. While the local currency is unlikely to ever reach anything remotely resembling parity with foreign currencies like the Pound or Euro, hopefully teams will see a bit more of a cash injection thanks to private investments and participation in European competitions. We’re already seeing some Springboks giving up lucrative deals overseas to come home, in part because of the aforementioned improved cash flows at some local franchises, but also because some players just want to be back in South Africa – whether that’s because their families and partners are here, because they miss the lifestyle, or because local franchises offer a better environment than some of their overseas counterparts (I’m looking at you, Toulon), it’s definitely a good thing for the teams here, and for the Springboks.

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