The 30-test rule won't stop exodus
The announcement by SA Rugby that players may only be based overseas and be eligible for the Boks if they have played 30 tests or more may temporarily deal with the symptoms, but it is unlikely to take away the cause of the player exodus over the past few years.
And while it may be seen as a step in the right direction and administrators feel they have to “do something” to stem the flow of players abroad and at least give the Springbok coach a fighting chance to prepare, the decision only looks at half the current problem with South African players and ignores a growing headache of players heading to Japan to play the off-season in the Far East.
Saru have been firm in their conviction that if you play in Super Rugby then you are deemed a local player.
And while that is all good and well, the problem they highlight with overseas-based players reached its crescendo last year before the Twickenham test, where they were forced to take a young side to face the Barbarians and then watch as a dozen players sailed in to take their places with five days preparation ahead of facing England.
While things were already edgy in the camp before then because of some of the results, the insistence on playing such a large portion of Springboks based abroad for such an important fixture is very much at the heart of the problem that currently doesn’t have a perfect solution.
On the one hand the Springbok coach is under so much pressure to deliver a winning team that he wants to choose his best side – wherever they may be. And while I’ve seen the numbers increase over the years of players being poached abroad, and previous columns have been scoffed at by some because they dare point out we have already lost the battle, there is very little that he can do.
Against this backdrop it is easy to understand the other side of the equation. A talented player who is wanted overseas, treated and coached well and paid handsomely for his efforts, should never be doubted for wanting to secure his family’s future.
If someone offered me a job overseas at five times my salary, it would be madness not to expect me to accept it.
Strangely enough, even in New Zealand – whose currency is valued 10 times the rand – the problems are the same, with Charles Piutau telling the Guardian over the last week his motivation at the age of 23 for turning down the All Black jersey.
“An offer came through from Ulster via my agent and it made me think. I had never thought of going overseas, but I asked my agent for some time to think. Two weeks passed and I thought long-term. Rugby is a short-lived career, would I have the chance to live outside New Zealand again? We’re so lucky as players to travel the world and do something we love. I thought: why not.”
“I’m the same as any islander boy, be they from a Samoan or Tongan background. We have our parents to thank for what they did to get us here. We’re the fruits of their labours and it is important that we pay back what they did for us with our talents.”
At the same time, speak to any one of the top players and they realise the advantages of playing in South Africa – other than familiarity, the family and friend networks and cost of living advantages in this country often are a lot better than they find abroad, and assimilating into a foreign culture is not always as easy as it seems.
The problem is, few things in life – and not just rugby – have ever been solved by regulation.
By imposing a ban of players abroad who haven’t had 30 tests may be a cosmetic fix and we all can understand the need to try and do something.
But it is unlikely to stop a young player heading abroad if the money is right.
For example, a small change in the tax code – which was announced in the budget speech the other day – has massive implications for rugby players and keeping players in SA – perhaps even more so than the 30-test rule.
The top players earn well in excess of R1-million a year – more if you count win bonuses, test fees and other endorsements – and it is highly likely that the top 60 or so rugby players are in the tax bracket announced of above R1.5-million
While this may be a small amount of players in SA – they now get taxed 45% of their pay - the same players Saru is desperately trying to keep in SA.
Compare this to a number of French and Irish clubs who are offering deals to players that if they complete their careers in their respective adopted homelands, they get a significant portion of the tax they pay refunded when they retire.
This can amount to millions for any player and is undoubtedly likely to figure when he thinks about staying in SA or not.
Add to this the uncertainty about the Japanese-based players – who aren’t affected by this 30-test ban – but made up more than half those who flew in ahead of the Twickenham game, and you can start to understand the complexity of the problem.
So what can we do to keep more players here, despite the lure of more and more money in foreign currency?
The answer is not much. Regulations will stop some players, but not all, and if the rand has a significant fall, it will make that number less and less.
But we can make the product better, stronger and more professional. We can put in a coaching succession plan that there is certainty among players about who they will play under and we can ensure contracts for the Springboks are dealt with in a timely manner and don’t drag on for months.
There are so many things in our local rugby scene that can improve, become more professional and aren’t difficult to solve.
And we have to realise we won’t stop every player heading abroad.
But if we make it as lucrative as possible to stay in SA, as professional as any setup they will find overseas, and streamline our competitions to be good for player welfare, then we will keep more players than we lose.