The change to eligibility rules will not necessarily halt the player drain in South African rugby as Springboks legend Bryan Habana believes there are a number of factors tempting the country’s best players abroad.
World Rugby on Tuesday that players would need to play in a country for five consecutive years, rather than three, from the end of 2020 to qualify for that specific nation. The sport’s governing body is hopeful the move will decrease the number of players from smaller nations looking to qualify for another country.
But with South African rugby, nothing is simple, and some of the country’s most promising talent is looking to foreign shores to pursue their respective careers. Sale Sharks confirmed the capture of Springboks scrum-half Faf de Klerk on Monday while Northampton announced the signing of Francois van Wyk on Tuesday. The Western Cape-born prop will join Saints’ South African contingent which numbers Nic Groom, David Ribbans and Cobus Reinach ahead of next season.
The temptation of qualifying for a country away from South Africa has also seen the likes of Ireland’s CJ Stander and Scotland’s Josh Strauss leave their Super Rugby franchises.
Habana, who won a record 124 caps for South Africa, applauded World Rugby’s decision to extend the qualification to five years and believes it will have a positive effect on other nations like Fiji or Tonga. But the uniqueness of South Africa’s transformation policy and other cultural and political influences means he fears the country’s top talent will continue to go abroad.
Bryan Habana at Kew Gardens on Tuesday as he previews the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Christopher Lee/Getty Images for Land Rover
“For South Africans, it’s not just about taking eligibility rules, it’s about considering the whole package from a political, personal, crime [perspective] which is something no other country from a rugby-playing point of view needs to consider,” Habana said. “I think a lot of people outside South Africa don’t understand that there are a number of unique things happening in South Africa at the moment.
“Not only from a rugby point of view, but from a political, economic and safety point of view. A lot people think rugby players go overseas to gain money, to gain a residency in another country, but there are so many different factors which people take into consideration.
“It’s not just about the money, it’s not just about the rugby, it’s people putting a whole process of conjugating factors together to make that decision.
“For a lot of youngsters, given the transformation charter which has been put down from a political point of view — it wasn’t just South African Rugby saying we are putting a transformation plan in place, it was put on the union. There are so many factors that no other rugby-playing nation has to deal with.
“No other nation have a history of apartheid, no other rugby-playing nations have an understanding of 70 percent of the population needing an opportunity that they didn’t have 20 or 25 years prior. It’s such an intricate thing that if you don’t come from South Africa then you’ll never understand it.”
Bryan Habana takes a lap of honour after the 2015 bronze final. David Rogers/Getty Images
Habana played in South Africa for the bulk of his career, before moving to Toulon in 2013. He has signed for a further year at the Top 14 giants and when retirement eventually appears on the horizon, he will weigh up a number of factors before deciding where to bring up his young family.
“A lot of players just want a Springbok team selected on merit but given the history of our country, that can’t just happen,” Habana said, talking at a Land Rover event for the 2019 Rugby World Cup draw. “It’s a factor which is a reality within our country.
“When these youngsters, and you bring in the 30-cap rule and the five-year eligibility rule, it’s not just about leaving South African shores, it’s about taking your future into consideration.
“We had some political violence in the universities last year. For me, as a fairly young dad, I’m looking towards the future. I’m looking at my son missing five weeks of university because of riots. And given the political situation, it’s a fact that I’ll consider in terms of my future.
“My wife has been held up in her home when we were still dating — she was lifted out of her bed and put under a blanket. Over and above that you have the transformation as well which makes your lifestyle vulnerable.
“So it might change for other players leaving different parts of the world — maybe a Fiji, or Tonga — but five years now makes a massive difference and World Rugby had to take a stand and thankfully that comes into effect post-2019.”
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Habana wary of new eligibility rule
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