Butch leads SA’s exodus north

The World Cup last week then the EDF Energy Cup this? Not quite, but Butch James will barely have time for the Springboks’ victory tour of South Africa before he is back on a plane heading for Europe.

After signing a two-year contract with Bath this summer the cup-winning flyhalf from KwaZulu-Natal is expected to be in the squad alongside his fellow countryman, Michael Claassens, when the Heineken and European Challenge cups start on November 9.

De Wet Barry, the Stormers centre, is already in the United Kingdom and began training with Harlequins this week, hooker Gary Botha from the Blue Bulls is due at the Stoop next month and a flood of All Blacks will arrive in Europe in December — Carl Hayman at Newcastle, Chris Jack at Saracens, Luke McAlister at Sale, Aaron Mauger at Leicester and Sam Tuitupou and Rico Gear at Worcester.

Add a crop of Argentinians, Samoans and Australians and the Premiership looks even more like a league of all nations this season. Jeremy Paul, the Australian hooker, has already appeared for Gloucester, where the Tongan New Zealand rugby league international Lesley Vainikolo plays. Peter Hewat from the New South Wales Waratahs is kicking for London Irish. The lure is obvious.

The South African rand is relatively weak and the central contracts in Australia and New Zealand come a poor second to deals for high flyers in England. An All Black would expect to at least double his money with a move to England or France, the other northern hemisphere country hoovering up talent after the World Cup.

New Zealand hooker Anton Oliver has signed for Toulon, where he will play alongside the Australia captain George Gregan and South Africa’s supreme second-rower Victor Matfield. All Black scrumhalf Byron Kelleher is going to Toulouse and Springbok captain John Smit is heading for Clermont Auvergne, along with the centre Marius Joubert. South Africa is likely to suffer most from French largesse.

According to the Planet Rugby website, Percy Montgomery is Perpignan bound, along with Ashwin Willemse, Gerrie Britz, Bobby Skinstad and Schalk Burger. Jean de Villiers and Fourie du Preez are also reported to be considering European offers, even though the South African board has said that only players playing at home will be selected for the national team.

Before the Springboks left for France, the players gave notice that they would contest the ruling in court. However, Mike Strange of Global Sports Management (GSM) expects the legal route to be abandoned, leaving any decisions on selection with Jake White’s successor as Springbok coach.

GSM handled the moves of Jack, Hayman and Mauger, and Strange estimated that an All Black would get about NZ$250 000 (£92 000) in New Zealand; the benchmark in England would be about £200 000.

”It’s also a lifestyle decision as well as a monetary thing,” said Strange. ”They want to try something different. They’ve played in the World Cup and done what they can back home.”

Matt Jones, of Benchmark Sport, who looks after Justin Marshall, the former All Black scrumhalf now playing for Ospreys in the Magners League, agrees. ”You have to keep enjoying your rugby. Life isn’t particularly long for a professional rugby player, but it’s not just about the money, it’s about your lifestyle.”

Both Strange and Jones say the two-year contracts most of the All Blacks have negotiated will give them time to return home and regain their places in the national team before the next World Cup — in New Zealand — in 2011.

However, the southern hemisphere unions and the International Rugby Board fear that the movement north will harm the pulling power for television contracts of the Super 14 and the Tri-Nations. The ”pension plan” transfers that followed previous World Cups have been replaced by the movement of players in their prime.

McAlister is only 24 and was man of the match when New Zealand lost to France in Cardiff. Tuitupou is 25. Steve Tew, the New Zealand Rugby Union’s deputy chief executive, says the departures are a ”significant challenge” for a union whose finances are stretched.

Andy Marinos, South Africa ‘s manager for national teams, says that holding on to players is an unequal task. ”Overseas clubs are offering big money and we just cannot compete,” he said. — Â

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