The list of South African players playing their rugby abroad is a long one.
This trend is nothing new. But it is a trend that, over the long run, probably does more harm than good.
Whether it’s for one month or one year, plying your trade on foreign shores has become the norm. And it’s not only journeymen, players looking to further their careers elsewhere or players who haven’t earned a Springbok cap yet that form part of this problematic exodus. It is also Springbok and Super Rugby players just looking to make an extra buck (or to ‘sharpen’ their ‘skills’ elsewhere, a convenient excuse becoming more and more popular).
Sure, you can pick up a few things playing in a different environment. It can help you grow as a player. It can help you gain more experience or game time (which is another reason why some players make the call to go over). But players, particularly Springbok players, for whom a lack of game time isn’t a problem shouldn’t be taking the bait which lures them to lucrative contracts overseas.
And it’s for these players that these irresistible deals pose more problems than profit.
I fully acknowledge and understand the impact that this mass exit has on South African rugby and the impact it has on Super Rugby teams. South African Super Rugby sides are becoming younger and it inevitably has a negative effect on their depth (look at guys like Springboks Elton Jantjies, Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel, who took off to Japan during the Currie Cup. These players are set to return to South Africa next year to take up their posts with the Super Rugby sides). So where is the rest period?
It has also become evident that some foreign club teams are targeting youngsters to get them into their Academy systems. All of the above mentioned situations are big issues for SA Rugby, but there is an even more important factor to consider.
Rugby players need rest. There is a reason why we have off-seasons. And overtraining is a real threat. They need a physical break. They need a mental break. Not so that they can spend some luxury time away with their families soaking up the sun and sipping on margaritas while reflecting on their great performances, but so that they can rest. Both physically and mentally.
A break gives them the chance to hit the reset button. It is hard to recover once you’ve burned out. And that is a risk that all these players take when they make their way to France, Japan, England or wherever after the Super Rugby season or during the Test break.
They finish a long Super Rugby season, join a club abroad and make it back just in time to slot into preparation for the following Super season. And it’s the same with Springbok players. They finish the June Test series, go play abroad and then they have to play in the end-of-year tour (well some of them, that is). So there is no rest period.
This greatly increases their risk of sustaining overuse injuries, overtraining and impaired concentration due to fatigue or a lack of rest or adequate recovery.
And it’s a risk that too many players take. Think of Vincent Koch (Saracens), Franco Mostert (Lyon), Lionel Mapoe (Kubota Spears), and Francois Hougaard (Worcester) to name a few. Taking a break might seem like a foreign, scary concept in today’s times, but it can be one of the most rewarding parts of a rugby player’s training cycle. It gives a player time to reflect on their season and what they can improve on, and set goals for the next one.
These are things that many players miss out on nowadays. One often sees players who have been playing for an entire year come into the Springbok squad not lacking fitness, but they just look off. And I’m not saying that these occurrences can’t be put down to any other matter, I’m just saying that sometimes the effect of continuous, non-stop pressure and playing might also be a culprit.
But it might be hard to resist the financial rewards that can come with a stint abroad. Unless you’re in these players’boots, you won’t know.
But something that I can say is that I do think that a break will improve performances, whereas just ‘sharpening skills’ abroad won’t.