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Premiership Rugby

Boks easy targets for European clubs

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

This new ruling, which is expected to take effect in the UK next week, once the clubs have been informed in writing by the Rugby Football Union (RFU), means that from now on any South African player that qualifies for a work permit can play in Europe without being considered as an 'overseas pro', leaving New Zealanders and Australians to jostle for the precious two overseas positions available per club.

And, according to agent Dale Jackson, a Director of Players Sport Management, an agency that looks after many of South Africa's top players, SA rugby bosses are a bit naive if they believe that this new ruling will not affect SA's playing resources.

"Some people have suggested that we [agents] are shouting from the roof tops," said Jackson to Planet Rugby about the new ruling.

"That couldn't be further from the truth. My first priority lies with our clients, but thereafter due to our infrastructure and investment in South Africa, we also have a vested interest in the long-term health of South African rugby. As a company we have South African rugby at heart and I just hope that we can work with SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd to make this a manageable situation.

"I think this is a great ruling for the players," he continued, "but the stakeholders in South African rugby have to understand the full ramifications of this ruling.

"Before, the top players in South Africa, your Corné Kriges of this world, were in demand, now players like Hendrik Gerber also come into the equation. Also, the United Kingdom is not the only destination, Italy and France have also become major options now."

An interesting sidebar to this ruling is that recent Springboks (i.e. any capped Bok within the last 18 months) automatically qualify for a United Kingdom work permit with the regulations for Italy and France being even more lenient.

With the high turnover in the Bok ranks, that leaves 46 players eligible abroad from last year alone, plus an additional nine new caps – and Selborne Boome, who up till now had not played for the Boks since 2000 – in 2003.

"Personally," said Jackson, "I find this ruling interesting, because it doesn't affect only England, but also countries like Italy, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France. This has been coming for some time, as I don't see the point in differentiating between a doctor, a lawyer or a rugby player.

"There is, however, talk," added Jackson, "that they may be changing that one Test in 18 months ruling, to one Test in 12 months. But that remains to be seen."

Jackson and his company have hired a top EU lawyer to look into every single loophole of this ruling, as Players Sport do not want to leave anything to chance when advising their clients over possible moves abroad.

"We want what's best, not only for our clients but to create a win-win situation for all the stakeholders in South African rugby," stressed Jackson, before adding: "I really don't expect the market to become flooded with SA players, but it just makes it easier for a club to buy someone like Mark Andrews, a player that could make a huge difference anywhere he plays.

"In the past I have offered some players to clubs abroad, but the two-player limit has proved to be the stumbling block. Money is very rarely the problem, but now a club like Wasps, who has Craig Dowd on their books, can also sign a top South African to bolster their ranks."

Using Wasps as an example is very interesting, because they have Dowd (a New Zealander) on their books, but were able to sign SA-born midfielder Stuart Abbott, who before playing for England against the New Zealand Maori, had a British passport, which, in the past put him at an advantage over – for example – Robbie Fleck, who has now been linked with a move to Bath.

This new ruling, however, puts all South African players in the same boat.

Ultimately, it throws up the old question of whether or not SA Rugby should allow foreign-based players to be considered for Springbok selection, with the Green and Gold and the lure of international rugby all that could keep the so-called 'second-tier' players in South Africa.

"It's sensitive issue and I can see why SA Rugby don't want to consider overseas-based players. But, personally, I see a lot of potential positives in selecting foreign based Springboks. It could only benefit our rugby in the long-term.

"England rugby has benefited immensely from the presence of some fine southern hemisphere players in their Premiership. We, too, could benefit from having our guys playing there and it would also mean that players like Brian Liebenberg, Jake Boer, Pieter de Villiers and Stuart Abbott wouldn't be lost to SA Rugby because other countries picked them first.

"Imagine what Mark Andrews would be able to tell Rudolf Straeuli about Jonny Wilkinson, having spent some time with him at Newcastle … That information would be invaluable."

By Howard Kahn

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