The Rugby World Cup boasts the best of South African talent
More than a dozen South African-born players and coaches will represent their adopted nations at the World Cup in France over the next two months. Some may have the chance to face the Springboks on rugby’s biggest stage.
What does the make-up of other nations’ RWC 2023 squads say about South African rugby – and indeed that of other countries such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, which continue to export their top talent to foreign clubs and competing Test teams? Will the exodus worsen in the coming years, or will SA Rugby find a way to stem the tide?
Boks have retained most top talent
At times like these, another line of questioning comes to mind: would these players have been selected for the Boks if they were still living and playing in South Africa? Would they have started ahead of the present incumbents? Indeed, would they even have made the 33-man squad?
This line of questioning speaks to South Africa’s incredible quality in depth. Nearly a decade ago, then Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer told WP Nel that he was not among the top three tighthead props in South Africa, and was unlikely to play for the Boks unless there was an injury crisis in that position. As a result, Nel moved overseas and pursued an alternate route to Test rugby: by playing club rugby in Scotland.
Since 2015, Nel has played more than 50 Tests and represented his adopted nation at three World Cups. The 37-year-old is one of four South African-born players in the current Scotland squad – with prop Pierre Schoeman and wingers Duhan van der Merwe and Kyle Steyn completing the contingent. South African-born scrum coach Pieter de Villiers, who represented France during his playing days, is also part of the Scotland set-up.
In spite of such losses, the Boks have built the most formidable scrum in the world, with five or six of the best props on the planet. Thomas du Toit failed to make the World Cup squad, and that omission speaks volumes for South Africa’s front-row stocks.
Though Nel and Schoeman’s rise to the top is worth celebrating – rugby is a professional sport, and players tend to follow the opportunities – it’s fair to say that their departure hasn’t weakened the Boks in this department.
Coming through the ranks together
Schoeman and Van der Merwe began their professional careers in South Africa and represented the South African Under-20 side alongside current Bok squad members such as Jean-Luc du Preez, André Esterhuizen, Jesse Kriel and Malcolm Marx.
Van der Merwe, a powerful ball carrier and prolific try scorer, has been an asset to Scotland and the British & Irish Lions in the ensuing years. Does his success for those teams, however, suggest that South African rugby has missed a trick?
Again, a quick scan of the current Bok group provides an emphatic answer. Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie are all at the World Cup in France, and the scrap for a place in the back three may have been all the more intense if Aphiwe Dyantyi and Sbu Nkosi were available.
Kolbe played against Kotaro Matsushima in the 2012 Currie Cup, before the latter went on to build a successful career in Japan. In 2013, Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne was called up to the Bok squad, and trained alongside top loose forwards such as Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw and Marcell Coetzee, but never won a cap.
The flanker moved to Asia two years later, and eventually made his debut for the Brave Blossoms at the 2019 World Cup. Matsushima and Labuschagne have both returned for the global tournament in France.
Lock David Ribbans came through the Western Province ranks alongside Eben Etzebeth. Since moving to Northampton Saints in 2017, he has taken his game forward and earned a call-up to England’s World Cup squad. Hooker Rob Herring is another product of the WP system who subsequently moved abroad. He is now participating in his second World Cup campaign with Ireland.
Paul Willemse was part of the famous SA U20 side that won the 2012 Junior World Championship on home soil. Although Steven Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Marvin Orie joined the senior Bok ranks in later years – and are part of the current group at the World Cup – Willemse furthered his career in France.
Surplus to requirements at the Bulls, Willemse found his niche abroad, and played a crucial role in France’s revival between 2020 and 2023 – before suffering an injury on the eve of the World Cup. France still have a strong South African presence, though, with former Bulls and Stormers kicking coach Vlok Cilliers playing a key role on the Les Bleus management team.
Half the Bok squad is based abroad
Overall, Erasmus and SA Rugby have managed to retain most of the top talent for the purposes of the national team. A closer look at the World Cup squad, however, suggests that the exodus has worsened of late.
Eighteen of the 33 are based at overseas clubs, and that number excludes other prominent players such as Handré Pollard (Leicester Tigers) and Lood de Jager (Panasonic Wild Knights), who both would have travelled to France if not for serious injuries.
More than 200 South Africans are competing in the top leagues overseas. Many are eligible for Bok selection and continue to be monitored by Erasmus. Some are already involved with competing Test nations, or are on track to qualify. Most have moved abroad for the financial opportunities.
The fact that so many are competing abroad raises another question: how strong would the South African franchises be if all of these players were playing in their home country? Though the Bulls and Sharks – and to a lesser degree, the Stormers – have brought back a clutch of players in recent months, the bigger overseas clubs continue to attract South Africa’s talent.
Those in the know describe it as a losing battle, although some insiders still hold on to the hope that the influx of private equity will ensure that the South African teams win a few rounds.
At the very least, South African fans should be grateful that the best players remain available for the Boks, and that they have been given every chance to defend their title in France. DM
This article first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick newspaper, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.