Should foreign based players be eligible for Springbok selection? That is the question and the debate rages on. Some say yes, others no and still others maybe. So let’s delve into this can of worms and look at the situation from all points of view. Let’s peal back the layers of the onion and hope we don’t come out the other side blubbering. Walk with me.
So let’s understand the current state which rugby union finds itself in. Since the sport turned professional administrators and broadcasters have constantly pushed for more rugby to be played. To what end and to who’s gain this has been done is perhaps a discussion for another time but the truth of the matter is that a top flight rugby player currently pushes his body to its limit, week-in-and-week-out, for close on eleven months of the year. Let’s take a fit Jean de Villiers as an example. Super Rugby starts mid February and runs through to the end of July. Because they Stormers consider themselves contenders – and I’d like to believe each South African franchise goes into the comp believing this – they have to start their best available team each weekend. This will see Jean play at least 16 league games. Should the Stormers make the playoffs – and depending on how they make the playoffs – add 2, possibly 3 games on top of that. Jean is South Africa’s premium inside centre and we as Springbok supporters expect nothing less than a win whenever they play, so this will see Jean play 3 incoming Tests midway through the Super Rugby season. A week after the Super Rugby final, the Springboks gather and prepare for The Rugby Championships, which will see Jean play a further 6 Tests against – barring Argentinia – their top two rivals. If Western Province make the finals of the Currie Cup, Jean will play in the semi and final – scheduled for the end of October – after which he will depart with the Springboks for their three Test end-of-year tour. In total, Jean – if fit – will potentially play 33 rugby matches in a season which spans from February to November.
This amount of rugby has seen a professional rugby player’s career drastically shortened as it is physically impossible for the human body to maintain that amount of stress at that level, on a constant basis.
So let’s look at why a rugby player would want to ply his trade outside of the pride land. The answer is simple and I am sure you’re well aware of the value of the Euro and the large amounts of money which are thrown at rugby players by French clubs like Toulon, Toulouse and Stade Francais and to a lesser extent UK-based clubs like Saracens, Munster and Leinster. An enticing carrot to say the least. Playing for these clubs could see a player earn enough to live comfortably for close to the rest of their life. Who wouldn’t want that security? From a business point of view, it would be a poor decision to decline any offer of that magnitude. Let’s not kid ourselves here – rugby is a business and smart decisions need to be made on all levels to ensure that business keeps ticking and money gets made. There are, of course, other factors involved to playing in Europe – such as lifestyle, the intensity and culture of the sport – but I believe the allure of money is a huge draw card. I’m not accusing anyone of greed. If I were in the same situation I know what my decision would be and I think if you look within, so do you.
Whilst there are a couple of factors which players need to consider when deciding to stay or go, for administrators there is one reason – and one reason alone – for wanting the top players to stay in South Africa: Money. Top players entertaining in any competition in South Africa will see more bums on seats in the stadiums and tuning in at home. This relates to a higher viewership which will result in advertisers willing to pay more for spots during game time as their reach will be that much greater. If there are fewer top players in the competitions, the level of play will decrease and viewership will drop along with potential revenue. The idea that rugby is a business holds the greatest weight at this level.
What do we as supporters want? For us supporters perhaps it is somewhat more of a holistic approach as we have no vested interest in and stand to make no form of financial gain from rugby. We watch rugby as purists who simply wish to be entertained. For me its a simple answer: I want to see the top players in this country playing in the Super Rugby and Currie Cup. I am interested in the wellbeing of the game within South Africa and I believe that if these top players stay in the country, the younger generations will feed off their knowledge, skill and class and in due time become top players themselves. This will see the Springboks remain a dominant force in world rugby, which is my only true concern.
So we’ve had a look at this love triangle from all angles and tried to understand each individual’s agenda. Now let’s answer this question from each individual’s perspective: Should foreign based players be eligible for Springbok selection? Regardless of what he is paid every rugby player seeks to test themselves at the highest level, to pit themselves against the best and see how they shape up. So naturally a player’s answer to this question would be yes. Administrators are stuck between a rock and a hard place for a two reasons. Firstly, in the same way that they want domestic competition viewership to remain strong, Springbok viewership is of the utmost importance and as we have established top players equates to higher viewership. Secondly, there is not much that the administrators can do to keep top players here in South Africa. The South African Rond will never be able to challenge the Euro, Pound or Yen and so contract offered by foreign clubs will always be a far greater attraction. Whilst an administrator would say no to the question, deep down he is a businessman and aware of the financial ramifications of his answer. For me as a supporter I believe that there is no greater honour than to don the green and gold and maintaining the integrity and pride which exists in the jersey supersedes money and lifestyle. The Springboks symbolise more than one player, epitomise more than one team. There is a heritage to the jersey which cannot be forgotten and should be respected at all costs. My answer would have to be no.
I’m just a purist, however, and understand the reality of the situation. Perhaps the best compromise would be one where the IRB adopted an international rugby season – which sees northern and southern hemisphere seasons run concurrently – and follow in the footsteps of FIFA by allocating international windows throughout the season. This will certainly allow for the eligibility of all top players, regardless of their base, but could potentially spell the end for an intricate aspect of rugby – its culture.