Springboks’ malaise serves as warning against relaxing Ireland squad policy
Joe Schmidt has watched South Africa wrestle with retaining talent in recent years
Springbok captain Eben Etzebeth shakes hands with coach Alister Coetzee following the Rugby Championship match between the All Blacks and the South African’s on September 16th, 2017, in Auckland which the New Zealand side won 57-0. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
The picture tells the story. In the foreground of the shot taken by Phil Walter of Getty, Springbok captain Eben Etzebeth stands with his arms almost folded in a defensive position.
He is looking straight ahead dejected, shocked, probably confused. The consoling attempts of coach Allister Coetzee appear wilfully ignored.
Etzebeth is staring into space, embarrassed to be in the stadium as the opprobrium from the remaining Springbok fans weighs down. One of his team-mates to his left sits with his head covered by his hands.
It is a picture of disbelief, a once proud rugby nation eviscerated and beaten by a record 57-0 score by the All Blacks, the worst in the 96-year history of meetings between the two sides. The photograph was taken in September of 2017.
Last year in Durban, South Africa managed 15 points in response to a similar assault of slick New Zealand attack. But etched on the face of the Springbok captain is utter self loathing, that the Boks could not muster a single point against their greatest rival.
Afterwards, former Springbok coach Nick Mallett said that criticising the side after such a shambles would be akin to “clubbing a baby seal”.
Former lock Kobus Wiese, a throwback tough guy and part of the 1995 World Cup winning squad, Tweeted “My heart bleeds for the Bok jersey, for every player who ever played in the jersey!”
Heavy. It was more than a bad defeat.
All last week the talk in Ireland was of Simon Zebo’s decision to cut himself loose from the IRFU umbilical cord and try his hand at life in the bigger rugby world of France.
Every day there was a storied variation on the same theme, Zebo leaving and the IRFU selection guillotine instantly falling, which player would follow him, what the IRFU reasoning was and, finally, Joe Schmidt stepping forward to explain he was future-proofing Irish rugby for the next two, four, six years.
Throughout, Schmidt and David Nucifora might well have been hotwired to the fortunes of Etzebeth, Coetzee and the downward spiral of the Springbok brand.
The Irish coach has seen how South Africa has wrestled with retaining talent and, over the last few years as disparities in economic muscle increase, how the country has begun to lose a battle to stem the flow of players northward.
The problem prompted a column by Jake White in April, with the former Springbok coach arguing that an overseas South African line-up would now beat the current side every time
The magnitudes are incomparable but the two countries have dealt with a similar problem in different ways although Ireland has successfully staunched what has only been a dribble in the form of Johnny Sexton, Ian Madigan, Marty Moore, Zebo and a few others.
An audit taken earlier this year on how many South African players were playing outside the country revealed the figure to be over 300; many of them elite players.
The problem prompted a column by Jake White in April, with the former Springbok coach arguing that an overseas South African line-up would now beat the current side every time.
At the stroke of a pen the overseas-based players such as Steven Kitshoff and Saracens’ Vincent Koch were no longer be available for Coetzee
He didn’t name a team but his thoughts involked familiar names such as Wasps’ Willie le Roux; Leicester’s JP Pietersen; Toulon’s Bryan Habana and Duane Vermeulen; Saracens’ Schalk Burger; Bath’s François Louw; and former Ulster scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, now with Montpellier. There was Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, also at Montpellier, with Frans Steyn and François Hougaard at Worcester.
The issue was addressed a few months later in July following June’s three-Test home series against France, when the South African Rugby Union (SARU) triggered a regulation that partially closed the border. Players earning foreign currency had to have played at least 30 Tests to be selected for the Boks.
At the stroke of a pen the overseas-based players such as Steven Kitshoff and Saracens’ Vincent Koch were no longer be available for Coetzee. But there was some latitude for the coach built into the legislation. In a World Cup year he will be allowed to pick whoever he wanted, regardless of the number of caps a player had or where he played his rugby.
Prop Kitshoff subsequently reversed out of his contract with Bordeaux Begles at the end of last season and returned to South Africa where, he claimed, adjustments to national contracts and higher match fees as well as bonuses have made agreements more attractive.
“We are sending a message to young players that if they wish to play for the Springboks, then they must remain in South Africa,” said Mark Alexander, president of SARU.
“How to balance the need to select the strongest possible team against the challenges of having such a large number of players based overseas has been a subject of long debate in our game.”
The rule will not stop more players going to Japan, where they can play in the months from October to January, and still be eligible for Super Rugby and the Springboks. The toll on their bodies doing that is another issue.
But there are also fears the 30 cap rule may not work. Former director of rugby at Saracens and London Irish, and Springboks defence coach Brendan Venter saw the change as helpful but wrote in his South African Times column that other factors are at play.
“It is impossible to completely stem the player drain caused by the weak rand value and other factors,” said the former Springbok back.
Ulster’s Jean Deysel says the rule will help, not just with Coetzee having South African players at hand to work with but with the more ethereal aspects of rugby.
“The majority of the Bok group needs to play together in South Africa in order to harness team cohesion and build a solid culture,” says Deysel. “For me, it’s about building the team environment and it’s so much easier when everyone is based in the same country.
“Allister Coetzee needs to work with a group of players on a consistent basis to forge team identity and make the boys understand what it means to be a Springbok, with your boots on and off.”
Habana’s take on the problem was both more holistic and more guarded. The priorities of the modern player are greater than the personal cost of passing up on a green shirt. From the Côte D’Azur, his is an over arching outlook on what sort of a life the modern player wants to lead.
The winger, who played a record 124 times for South Africa, has been in France since he left Western Province in 2013.
A lot of players just want a Springbok team selected on merit but, given the history of our country, that can’t just happen
“I think a lot of people outside South Africa don’t understand that there are a number of unique things happening in South Africa at the moment,” Habana told ESPN in May.
“Not only from a rugby point of view but from a political, economic and safety point of view. A lot people think rugby players go overseas to gain money, to gain a residency in another country. But there are so many different factors which people take into consideration.
“A lot of players just want a Springbok team selected on merit but, given the history of our country, that can’t just happen.
“We had some political violence in the universities last year. For me, as a fairly young dad, I’m looking towards the future. I’m looking at my son missing five weeks of university because of riots.”
Doubtless Coetzee has readymade explanations if the team continue to fail. But he too has come under scrutiny, with Rassie Erasmus soon to land into the middle of it from Munster as the Springboks’ director of rugby.
Coetzee took over a Springboks team that lost to defending champion New Zealand in the semi-finals of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
In 2016, his first season in charge, South Africa lost at home to Ireland for the first time, a defeat that still stings them; in Argentina for the first time; was on the receiving end of its heaviest ever home defeat in the first 50-point All Black thumping; and was beaten by little Italy for the first time.
This season in the Rugby Championship, South Africa drew with Australia, were KO’d by the All Blacks and then came back to lose 24-25 to them in their final game. Never did a one point defeat seem so richly rewarding.
But three wins against a French touring side in June and two against Argentina are hollow numbers for the former world champions and have convinced few of a South African surge, not even towards the 1995 glory days of François Pienaar and Nelson Mandela but respectability.
It is a young side struggling with the demands of a major rebuild. Coetzee is creating new leaders, building a new defensive system and trying to infuse experience into a group that are short on game time. Eight of the starting team in the 57-0 thrashing had less than ten Tests under their belts.
The 34-man squad heading to Ireland for this month’s Test in Dublin is also light on experience. There are 15 backs in the travelling party with two-thirds of them holding 10 caps or less. Of those 10 players, five have between zero and three caps.
The system is still far from perfect and what Coetzee faces gives a glimpse of what problems Schmidt might have had if a greater number of players were allowed to leave Ireland without having sanctions imposed on them at international level
Three players on the squad are contracted to overseas clubs: Franco Mostert, François Louw and Elton Jantjies. None of them will be considered for selection for the match against Wales at the beginning of December as the Test falls outside the international window.
Despite having 35 caps the wonderfully talented Jan Serfontein will not travel at all after requesting not to be considered for the tour as he wants to settle in at French club Montpellier, which he joined recently.
The 24-year-old centre from Port Elizabeth was named the 2012 World Junior Player of the Year when South Africa won that year’s World Rugby Under 20 Championship.
He was included in the squad for the 2013 junior Springbok team but was withdrawn to allow him to be available for the national senior team.
The system is still far from perfect and what Coetzee faces gives a glimpse of what problems Schmidt might have had if a greater number of players were allowed to leave Ireland without having sanctions imposed on them at international level. Why else would Zebo’s head be placed on a pole at Lansdowne Road?
But Test rugby needs a strong South African team, not one that has lost 15 of their last 17 Test matches against New Zealand and where the idea of a superpower no longer exists, where the aura has been broken.
All they can do now is believe in their building process, place trust in the current construct.
“Eight new players were capped so far this season and a total of 19 new international players made their Springbok debuts since the 2015 Rugby World Cup,” explained Coetzee.
“Our process to rebuild the Bok team and steadily working towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan is continuing at a good and satisfying pace. We’ve also had a number of new Springbok captains since then.”
Indeed. We saw the photograph. It may take Etzebeth some time to recover.