Hold mirror to Montpellier and see a reflection of Springboks in crisis

Leinster’s opponents backboned by former world champions who face worrying talent drain

Frans Steyn of Montpellier is tackled by Teimana Harrison of Northampton Saints during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Northampton Saints and Montpellier at Franklin’s Gardens in Northampton, England. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Frans Steyn of Montpellier is tackled by Teimana Harrison of Northampton Saints during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Northampton Saints and Montpellier at Franklin’s Gardens in Northampton, England. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

 

The deep-rooted and potentially unsolvable problem facing Springbok rugby is clear for all to see at Montpellier Hérault.

There are 12 South Africans on the Montpellier roster. You would know Frans Steyn, those ferocious du Plessis brothers, Pierre Spies even. But it is a supporting cast of 22- and 23-year-old South Africans who will probably never experience the Test arena, unless they are naturalised and represent France, who represent a clear threat to the global game. Because a weakened Springboks weakens rugby.

“The worry for South Africa isn’t the established international player leaving but the really good next generation of players who should be playing international rugby in the next three, four, five years,” explains Shaun Sowerby, Montpellier’s forwards coach, who has one Springbok cap. “A lot of them seem to be leaving. That should have an impact on our domestic rugby and eventually our international rugby.

“I am not an administrator but I can do the maths. In five years’ time, if you are minus 50 of your young up-and-coming players, that is a big worry even if your depth is as strong as it is in South Africa. They need to think of a way to keep them at home.”

For the solution, we turned to Jake White.

“There is only one solution and it is exactly what Ireland, England and New Zealand do – if you go overseas, you don’t play for your country,” says the already-sacked Montpellier head coach, who guided the Rainbow nation to World Cup glory in 2007.

“It’s the only way you can do it,” White continues. “It’s like anything; if you leave the door open for players to earn euros and still be a Springbok or choose euros and not be a Springbok, then the player has to make a decision. As it is now, where a player can go overseas and still play in the national team, well, you would be crazy if you didn’t do it. Because it’s the best of both worlds.”

The crisis that currently envelops the game in South Africa can be used as a cautionary tale by the IRFU; a reason to tighten the current policy regarding players moving abroad.

White, of course, has exploited this situation as much as anyone. Perhaps to his own downfall. He makes way for Vern Cotter next summer.

“It’s not dissimilar to what we see in football,” says Sowerby, who also leaves the club after this season. “[Contractual decisions] happen very early and there is a bit of a merry-go-round in France because there are so many clubs.”

Except it is nothing like football. If it was, White would be out the door as soon as the decision became public. Professional rugby in France is very much its own, monstrous, Frankenstein creation.

Romantic way

The natives have grown restless despite steady progress on White’s watch, including reaching the Top 14 semi-final last season. Like most French organisations there is a director general, Mohed Altrad, who rules in a dictatorial fashion. “According to the French press, White’s failure to learn the language to any significant degree was a contributory factor in Altrad’s decision not to extend his contract,” wrote Gavin Mortimer, the French-based English journalist for RugbyWorld.com.

White arrived in 2014, after Fabien Galthié fell out with Altrad, and immediately started to make use of the mass exodus of his countrymen to Europe.

“I’ve been in France for 12 seasons and it slowly, slowly progressed until the last five or six years where it has exploded with as many foreigners as there are French-born players,” Sowerby continues. “Montpellier wouldn’t be the only club. Toulon would have that, Toulouse would have that. Others clubs have that. In Montpellier’s case, it is a relatively young club that jumped levels as opposed to traditional clubs and traditional way of doing it.”

Because of that, there is a relative turnover in terms of squad members. In Franklin’s Gardens last weekend, for a stumbling 16-14 defeat to Northampton Saints, Montpellier took the field with four South Africans, four Georgians, two Australians, a Fijian, a Kiwi and three French natives. Club captain Fulgence Ouedraogo came off the bench.

In contrast, Irish rugby’s business model saw Leinster field 13 Irishmen, Zane Kirchner and Isa Nacewa against Castres.

Ironically, via Montpellier, White is helping to tear apart the rugby nation he helped become the best side in the world just nine years ago.

“We’ve let 10 years go by, we’ve just drifted along, and I think there needs to be a clear understanding about what do we do next,” White said in the aftermath of a disastrous international campaign, which included defeat at home to Ireland and culminated in a 57-15 defeat to New Zealand in Durban.

Deep-rooted, politically related problems in South Africa make clear understanding unlikely any time soon.

“I can’t believe that a player in the national team in front of his home crowd is not giving his all, so I feel so sorry for everyone who is involved there because it can’t be fun. I think one of the things about growing up in South Africa is you really long for the day that you play for your national team. It must be so disappointing for all of those players, because they’re basically living their dream and it’s probably a bit of a nightmare for them.”

Financial dream

“There is no other sport in the world, never mind club or country, that would invest the best years of a boy’s life up to 25 and then let him go play abroad,” says White. “Letting all that has been invested in him be taken to another club.”

The du Plessis brothers moved to France after last year’s World Cup. Bismarck is out injured until December while Dr Jannie and Davit Kubriashvili will take turns locking horns with Jack McGrath and Cian Healy.

That’s essentially the difference between French and Irish teams – outsourced mercenaries against homegrown talent.

Tomás O’Leary is the latest foreigner to sign up as a medical joker to cover for the injured Benoît Paillaugue. Such an option is no longer open to an Irish province.

So, this game is a clash of rugby ideologies – the French spending spree against the Irish faith in their own, because that is seen as the only way of surviving this altered European landscape.

And not going the way of the endangered Springbok.

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