This should have been done a long time ago. If we had taken a stand on Regulation 9 when our players first started going overseas, European clubs would quickly have realised that signing South Africans is risky business.
The 30-cap rule produced the opposite outcome. The La Rochelle owner in France thought he had hit the jackpot when he signed Wiaan Liebenberg because he got an uncapped 26-year-old who was good enough to captain the SA U20s but who couldn’t be called up to the Boks.
But last week the La Rochelle owner got a letter from SA Rugby to say that the honeymoon is over and there is no more 30-cap rule. Players like Wiaan are back on Rassie Erasmus’ shopping list.
We should never have allowed a situation where players with 30 or more caps could go overseas and still be regulars for the Boks. Running out for the Springboks and wearing that jersey should always be the pinnacle of any South African player’s career. But it’s like a parent that lets their child cross the line for a while and is now putting their foot down – better late than never!
There’s no club in the world that wants to sign a player knowing that he could be missing at important parts of the season. What’s going to happen now is that those European clubs are going to think twice about signing SA players because they could be pulled out of the squad every time there’s a national team selection. And the spin-off from that is you’re going to get more talent staying in South Africa and developing the next generation of players.
However, to get this right, it’s crucial that SA Rugby doesn’t allow certain players to occasionally excuse themselves from Tests without retiring from international rugby, because that will make a mockery of this plan.
The decision to halve the number of professional players in South Africa will see the best players offered bigger contracts to stay at home, but it will also mean that many young, non-contracted players look overseas. In response, Erasmus must systematically call up those overseas-based players so that they have to make a choice between upsetting their club owner, or officially retiring from Test rugby.
That’s a difficult decision for a 26-year-old who has never been to the World Cup and, as the national coach, I would want to know from day one which players really want to be Boks and which are just hedging their bets.
If we don’t follow through like this, and youngsters can indefinitely earn Euros and play for the Boks, all of the best players will be overseas while SA Rugby overpays the leftovers who were never going to go abroad anyway.
I’ve always been against picking overseas players and that hasn’t changed. The overseas-based Boks who end up being part of Rassie’s long-term plans should have to agree in writing to return home when their current Euro contract expires.
But SA Rugby must defend their biggest asset, the players, and by making sure that every Bok squad announcement includes a contingent of well-paid overseas players, European club owners will be deterred and more of our top talent will remain in Super Rugby.