The Currie Cup is a shadow of the competition that was once revered as the most intense domestic championship, and it looks like Super Rugby is headed down the same path.
In the past fortnight, two Springboks and a pair of solid Super Rugby campaigners have succumbed to the lure of lucrative contract offers from overseas clubs.
JP Pietersen is reading over the fine print of a deal with a Japanese club that will see the Bok winger become one of the game’s top earners, and fellow international Zane Kirchner is off to Ireland to organise Leinster’s back three.
Meanwhile, Stormers halfback Dewaldt Duvenage and Lions prop JC Janse van Rensburg will settle into new digs in the south of France later this year.
South African players have been heading overseas with frequency since Francois Pienaar, Joel Stransky and Rudolph Straeuli packed their bags after the climax of winning the 1995 World Cup.
But until quite recently, the top- flight players who gorged themselves on biltong in preparation for a long stint away from home, were almost always in the twilight of their careers.
Pienaar, Stransky and Straeuli were all in their 30s when they made their way to clubs in England.
Conversely, Kirchner (28), Janse van Rensburg (27), Pietersen (26) and Duvenage (24) are arguably in, or near, their prime.
In the past, players had to weigh up the chance to earn more money overseas against surrendering their hopes of playing for the Boks.
But the overwhelming number of internationals who have been lured abroad by the euro and the yen could soon force a change to SARU’s insistence on rewarding players for sticking around.
By this time next year, Pietersen and Kirchner will be plying their trade in the northern hemisphere, along with eligible Test forwards Gurthrö Steenkamp, Schalk Brits, BJ Botha, Andries Bekker, Juandre Kruger and Francois Louw, and international calibre backs Ruan Pienaar, Morne Steyn, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana.
Unless Heyneke Meyer intends fielding a second-rate team, the Bok coach will have to select a side loaded with stalwarts of the Heineken Cup.
This will in turn remove the only incentive keeping a horde of bright prospects from cashing in on big money offers north of the equator.
Fourie is believed to be earning R22m over the course of his three-year stint in Japan, and Pietersen’s deal is expected to be in the same ball park.
It is not possible for local rugby bosses to compete with such an offer, given that they pay a top Bok like Pietersen in the region of R4m per annum, while the likes of Kirchner have an income hovering around R2.5m.
Sanzar, rugby’s southern hemisphere governing body, is clearly of the belief that the answer is in expansion, and in 2011 the Currie Cup was effectively made redundant by an arduous,15-team Super Rugby format that is heavy on intra-conference derbies.
The turnstiles bear witness to the fact that too much of a good thing is bad, and the high attrition-rate of a competition that sees the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers playing each other at least twice a year has turned Super Rugby into a contest of the walking wounded.
The result is that top players can not only earn more money overseas, but they can extend their shelf life by avoiding Sanzar’s killing fields.
It has also, and will continue to, put Meyer in the difficult position of having to rely on unproven, raw players.
By way of example, the Bok coach has confirmed that Bekker’s Japanese deal effectively makes the tallest Bok unavailable for international duty.
Kruger may still be available during the respective Test windows, but Meyer will not have the luxury of monitoring his progress via the recently established Mobi-Unit.
The Bok coach must consequently fast-track 20-year-old Sharks prodigy Pieter-Steph du Toit to take over the No 5 jersey. And it’s only a matter of time before Du Toit is offered a suitcase-full of money by a French or Japanese club, or worse, he suffers a season-ending injury.
Perhaps the only hope of preserving the quality of the Sanzar product lies in the possibility that European clubs will one day be limited to a strict quota of foreigners, and that the Japanese spring might dry up after that nation hosts the World Cup in 2019. - Cape Argus