South Africa is still satisfying the voracious global appetite for elite rugby players – not just has-beens, writes Andy Capostagno.
When Carlos Alberto Parreira was coach of Bafana Bafana, he asked this question of an audience: "What is Brazil's main export?" The answer was football players. According to Parreira, Brazil "exports" on average 3 000 football players every year. The vast majority do not become household names, but every football club in the world knows that Brazilians simply play the game better than anyone else, and so demand keeps up with supply.
In the rugby world it has long been known that the richest seams of talent lie in New Zealand and South Africa. Go to a rugby club anywhere in the world and you will find a Kiwi or a Saffer.
For example, Timisoara rugby club in Romania is coached by Capetonian Danie de Villiers. He began his coaching career in Wellington and then had spells with both Boland and the Pumas, before wanderlust set in. He coached the Tunisian national side for three years, spent a year with Roma Olimpic and has been with Timisoara for the past year.
Scratch the surface and you will find hundreds of stories like that of De Villiers, and it is not a new phenomenon.
In 1979 Nick Mallett won Oxford blues at both cricket and rugby, and stayed on to play some club rugby for Richmond. After winning two Springbok caps in 1984, he moved to Rovigo in Italy and was their player-coach for a year before settling in France.
France gave Mallett the rugby education he was looking for. He was player-coach at Saint-Claude for five years, during which time he also ran the clubhouse bar. Then he spent two years in the higher echelons at Boulogne-Billancourt before returning to South Africa to coach False Bay, Boland and, ultimately, the Springboks.
At around the time that Mallett returned to South Africa, a young prop forward from Malmesbury was going the other way. Pieter de Villiers was at Stellenbosch University and played for Maties, but never represented Western Province. Instead, he pitched up in Paris in 1994 and started playing for Stade Français.
French clubs: A destination of choice
De Villiers said that, after Stellenbosch, French club rugby came as something of a shock. In one of his first games the other two members of the front row were psyching each other up in the dressing room. They did this by head-butting each other. Inevitably, it got out of hand and one laid the other out – this before the game had even begun.
Then there was the matter of training. The usual split of backs and forwards would assemble and do drills for an hour but, said De Villiers, training would always end with a game of touch rugby. Here, every player was expected to be able to take and give a pass off either hand and to kick the ball when required. "They never taught props that at Stellenbosch," he said.
And that is one of the things that make French rugby strong. Watch the national side attack and they come in waves, backs and forwards swarming across the field at pace.
An old Australian scrumhalf once said that it was relatively easy to defend against South African sides because they came at you from right to left. No such distinction exists in a French team with its dander up.
Thanks to pioneers such as Mallett and De Villiers, French clubs are now the destination of choice for elite South African players. Last Saturday Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith, Bakkies Botha and Craig Burden all played in a victorious Toulon side, while Jano Vermaak, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Schalk Ferreira turned out for Toulouse on Sunday. Jacques Cronjé and Brian Mujati both played for Racing Métro, while Dewaldt Duvenhage and Wandile Mjekevu were on the losing side for Perpignan.
Of that group, which is by no means exhaustive, it is amazing to think that Cronjé and Van Niekerk are into their seventh seasons in France. Both were schoolboy prodigies at number eight, for the Bulls and the Lions respectively, and had major Springbok careers – 32 caps for Cronjé, 52 for Van Niekerk. They are entirely atypical of the theory that South Africans playing in Europe are past their best and looking for a good pension scheme.
Another example is Rory Kockott, who won the French Player of the Season award last year playing scrumhalf for Castres. Kockott left the Sharks because he could not hold down a regular first-team slot and now, at the age of 27, is wrestling with his conscience over the possibility of representing France at the World Cup this time next year.
Kockott's strengths are well known. He is strong, very quick off the mark and consequently keeps back rows tied to the scrum. He kicks well from the base and even better at goal.
Less often remarked on are his deficiencies. Kockott's passing game is well short of international class and his option-taking is suspect – that is, he sometimes seems to play by numbers.
The fact of the matter is that close to a dozen other South African scrumhalfs would need to be injured or unavailable before Kockott's name might enter the mix. So it's a no-brainer. Get your head down, young man, and make a name for yourself in France – and if you want some good advice, call Mallett and De Villiers.