Social media has been abuzz recently with lists of South African rugby players migrating overseas to ply their trade abroad after Super Rugby 2016.
The list below is not an exhaustive one and does also include a small handful of players who will return to South Africa to play in Super Rugby 2017 but will not be available in the domestic Currie Cup competition.
South African Rugby Players Migrating
Dean Greyling (Oyonnax), Marcel van der Merwe (Toulon),Werner Kruger (Scarlets), Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg (Montpellier), Le Roux Roets (Racing Metro), Lappies Labuschagne (Kubota Spears),
Deon Stegmann (Honda Heat),Grant Hattingh (Kubota Spears), Jacques Potgieter (Fukuoka Sanix Blues),Duhan van der Merwe (Montpellier)
Maks van Dyk (Toulouse), Coenie van Wyk (Toshiba Brave Lupis), Henry Immelman (Montpellier),
Willie Britz (NTT Shining Arcs), Francois Uys (Toyota Verblitz)
Vincent Koch (Saracens), Schalk Burger (Saracens), Nic Groom (Northampton Saints), Louis Schreuder (Kubota Spears), Jean Kleyn (Munster)
Cell C Sharks
Marcell Coetzee (Ulster), JP Pietersen (Leicester Tigers), Paul Jordaan (La Rochelle), Joe Pietersen (Kamiashi Seawaves) Kyle Cooper (Newcastle Falcons)
Franco Mostert (Lyon), Derick Minnie (Zebre), Marnitz Boshoff (Connacht), Warren Whiteley (Docomo Red Hurricanes), Jaco Kriel (Kubota Spears), Lionel Mapoe (Kubota Spears)
Elton Jantjies (NTT Shining Arcs) Lloyd Greeff (Zebre), Warwick Tecklenburg (Kamiashi Seawaves)
Steven Sykes (Oyonnax), Schalk Oelofste (Mont-de-Marsan), Philip du Preez (Mont-de-Marsan), Louis Fouche (Kubota Spears), Aiden Davids (Toulon), James Hall (Oyonnax), Shane Gates (NTT Shining Arcs), Jurgen Visser (Docomo Red Hurricanes)
Francois Hougaard (Worcester)
Bart Le Roux (Zebre)
Gerbrand Grobler (Racing Metro)
The number of players on this list represents an astronomical departure of player resources for a country in a single year. South Africa is not the only Southern Hemisphere rugby playing country that is subject to this kind of annual player drain, with players from Australia and New Zealand also a part of the annual migration to the leagues of the Northern Hemisphere. For a country such as Argentina, admittedly before the introduction of the Jaguares in Super Rugby, and a region such as the South Sea islands, it has been the norm to select their national sides almost solely from players based in Europe.
Younger players leaving
In the past, a plush European contract was the domain of international players looking to supplement their pension with a plush contract in the Northern Hemisphere for a year or two. This trend has definitely started to change, with many younger players making the move. Some players as young as 21 have signed up for the move, with a few going on to represent their new countries, obtaining citizenship by virtue of residency.
Putting this into the South African context, we have seen a number of negative effects which could be indicative of the serious downside attached to the continued movement of players to the richer leagues in the North and in some instances to Australia. This issue has been growing steadily since the inception of the professional era and is sure to reach boiling point very soon. The poor state of the South African economy has had a more than significant influence on this. Players cannot be blamed for signing contracts that offer them earnings that would have been unimaginable in any other career in South Africa. The sad reality is that there are second division French clubs that are in a position to bid for quality players.
Lower quality competitions
If this level of player drain was not a reality, the push by the South African Rugby Union (SARU) to include an additional franchise in Super Rugby would have made some sense. The current reality is that while the continued flow of players from smaller unions to the bigger Super Rugby franchises to replace those who choose to play overseas is still in place, the annual departure of players has meant that the quality has been diluted. The current qualification series for the Currie Cup has been of exceptionally poor quality and in many instances could not justifiably be regarded as professional rugby.
The Northern Hemisphere leagues have certainly become a lot stronger and a greater spectacle with the influx of players from around the word, but if this is done in an uncontrolled manner the danger is that both International and their own national sides can be compromised. With such a powerful domestic competition, how is it possible that the French national team is rated at 7th in the world by World Rugby</strong>? Without consideration to limiting the number of offshore players a team can field, or putting a salary cap in place, I believe International rugby is heading for trouble and would have to reinvent itself, modelling International tournaments and competitions using the same format as football. I can’t see any true rugby lover being happy with that thought.
The harsh reality we are facing is that Southern Hemisphere rugby is heading for trouble. Television viewership is down across all broadcasters. The South African teams, inclusive of those who have been relatively successful in 2016, are playing in front of diminishing crowds. The South African rugby public are not fools. They have seen the decline in quality and know that they are no longer watching the cream of the country’s rugby talent when they need to make the decision if they are going to bother to attend a match or watch it on television.
The growing apathy of the South African rugby viewing public represents a major problem for the entire SANZAAR region. The general rule of thumb is that the revenue generated by South African television viewership is 66% of total annual income. Losing close to four million viewers year on year is a serious concern, especially given the relatively small populations of the countries involved in comparison to the much larger populations in the North.
Long term planning required from World Rugby
There can be no doubt that without a major intervention from World Rugby in terms of either imposing player number limits or salary caps to national competitions, the current level of player migration will not be stopped, to the detriment of smaller countries or those with weak currencies. Without being able to field their strongest team available (let’s not forget that Northern Hemisphere clubs need only to release offshore players in two international windows), some international games could be downgraded from Tests to international friendlies.
Football fans might enjoy friendlies, NOT rugby fantatics. Rugby does not do friendlies….
Post publishing comment: We have received a number of comments across various platforms that the impact of SARU’s Strategic Transformation Plan has been ignored. This was the subject of a previous article and this piece focusses specifically on the financial aspects.