Europe new hotbed of club rugby after post-Cup exodus

Club rugby in the northern hemisphere has long been derided as the poor cousin in world rugby.

But the post-World Cup exodus of a raft of top-flight internationals from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will help confound that long-standing belief.

It used to be the case that players from the southern hemisphere looked on signing up for a European club as merely a good retirement pay-off.

Club owners in England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are continuing to welcome the foreign legion, but the players they are signing are top-notch competitors, often at the peak of their careers.

An unprecedented number of All Blacks and Springboks head for the World Cup in France with one-way tickets after succumbing to the lure of lucrative European club contracts.

Six of New Zealand’s World Cup squad of 30 and another handful of fringe players have confirmed moves to Europe, a move that can only boost the standard of European club rugby.

Exciting inside centre/fly-half Luke McAlister has barely begun his All Black career, but the 23-year-old is moving to Sale, leaving a gaping hole in the Kiwi midfield, with the other top-rated inside centre, Aaron Mauger, also heading north.

“There’s rugby but there’s also life outside rugby, and it was a hard decision, something I didn’t make overnight,” McAlister said when he confirmed his decision.

Along with McAlister and Mauger, 27-year-old prop Carl Hayman is another leaving while at the top of his game.

Lock Chris Jack, hooker Anton Oliver, scrumhalf Byron Kelleher and former All Black flanker Marty Holah are also shifting north but are moving into the twilight of their careers.

Recent All Blacks who missed out on World Cup selection such as Rico Gear, lock Greg Rawlinson and Sam Tuitupou are among the fringe players also chasing the big money in Europe.

“We all know we can’t compete financially and that overseas clubs can offer more money, and that’s the cold hard facts of it. But we still have the lure of the black jersey,” assistant All Black coach Steve Hansen said in May.

When lock Ali Williams signed a new two-year deal with the New Zealand Rugby Union, the relief in Auckland was palpable.

“Ali’s decision underlines the value of the black jersey and the playing environment we can offer players,” said New Zealand Rugby Union deputy chief executive Steve Tew.

The Springbok exodus is of a similar magnitude, with several leading players, among them captain John Smit, lock Victor Matfield, hooker Gary Botha and wing Ashwin Willemse, having already signed up to play for clubs in France and England.

There are a further estimated 100 South African players based in Europe, but unlike the swarms of Argentinians who play their trade there, the Boks—like their All Black counterparts—have been barred from turning out for their country.

This is undoubtedly one of their main selling points: demanding club owners happy to have a seasoned international they can rely on week in week out when local players disappear on international duty.

Many of the Bok players were mistakenly under the impression they could ply their trade abroad and still come into contention for the national side after coach Jake White had selected overseas-based players Percy Montgomery, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Danie Coetzee and Cobus Visagie.

But the South African Rugby Union ruled any players based out of South Africa will no longer come into contention for the Springbok rugby team, a decision taken in a bid to prevent the increasing exodus.

Gary Botha, understudy to Bok captain Smit, said he was left with no choice but to seek employment elsewhere—at Harlequins in London.

“Nothing means more to me than the Bok jersey, but as a father I need to put food on the table,” he said.

“I had a Bok contract in 2005, but subsequently lost it, and since then I’ve been promised each year they would look at my form to justify getting a new contract. I’ve received nothing.”

South Africa may miss Botha’s presence, but his transfer and those of others will go a long way to raising the bar of club rugby throughout Europe and boosting rugby’s profile among fans and junior players in a predicted post-World Cup boon.—Sapa-AFP

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