Looking to the north
Stephen Nell
August 5, 2009

Will the giants of the southern hemisphere increasingly be forced into considering players based in the north in the near future?

All Black coach Graham Henry gave the question an emphatic 'no' when he was asked about the possibility of picking from overseas to bolster his side's shaky set piece. The New Zealanders have a strict policy of picking only those who participate in their own competitions. Not even Chris Jack, who is playing for Western Province in South Africa's Currie Cup and has already agreed terms to return to New Zealand for next year's Super14, is under consideration to solve the Kiwis' lineout woes.

But don't bet against the All Blacks still being strengthened by returning players prior to the 2011 World Cup. They already have most of the ones they want under contract, but no doubt the likes of Carl Hayman, currently skippering Newcastle, and Nick Evans, who is at Harlequins, can provide them with significant depth in key positions.

The South African approach has usually been pragmatic, though they have made a point of getting the ones they really want back.

They have previously enforced a rule of three overseas-based players until South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins last year waived his right to approve Springbok teams.

This means coach Peter De Villiers can pick whoever he wants, even if it means selecting his entire team from the northern hemisphere. Not that De Villiers wants to do that. He has again stated that he will always look at home first and will only select from overseas if nothing is available in South Africa. This is highly unlikely to ever be the case.

Nevertheless, De Villiers's resolve may be tested in the coming year. Jean de Villiers and Frans Steyn have both confirmed their respective moves to Munster and Racing Metro. Bryan Habana has also indicated he will make a call on his future in October, suggesting he is also looking at options abroad.

All three these players had an integral role in South Africa's success over New Zealand. There are fine players available to take their positions, for example Wynand Olivier at inside-centre, Jongi Nokwe on the wing and Zane Kirchner at fullback. However, not picking the likes of De Villiers, Habana and Steyn will certainly impact on the world champions' rhythm.

The lure of playing against the British & Irish Lions - a tour that was ironically a damp squib because of the ridiculously high ticket prices and lack of exceptional talent among the tourists - put the brakes on an exodus from South Africa.

The likes of John Smit and Victor Matfield even returned after brief stints overseas. There is little doubt that this Springbok team ranks among the finest ever assembled. Having conquered the Lions and All Blacks, you would have to make them favourites to win the Tri-Nations. This year may well turn out to be one of the most glorious in South Africa's post-isolation years, but the question is to what extent they will be able to continue going from strength to strength if the coach is unbending in his attitude towards picking from overseas.

Certainly this is a sensible time for top players that are after a different rugby experience to head for England or France. They can spend 12-18 months there and return in time to qualify for the World Cup.

As for the All Blacks, it is clear that their depth has been eroded. However, they will only get stronger from here on as the World Cup approaches. For South Africa, the decisions they make in the next year or so on the foreign player issue is likely to determine whether they continue their dominance of the world game. It may just require a softening of De Villiers's stance to ensure that.


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