It’s all of 20 years since an Irish rugby team appeared at the Outeniqua Stadium in George, on South Africa’s picturesque Garden Route on the Western Cape.
So much has changed in the rugby fortunes of both countries since a touring Irish XV lost 27-20 to South West Districts that it was no surprise when Munster ran out deserving 39-22 winners over the Southern Kings in their first ever match on South African soil.
The fact that Munster were led onto the field by a revered member of the local community in CJ Stander offered yet another indicator of the changing face of world rugby over that period.
Back in 1998 when Ireland contested their last ever seven-match tour of the southern hemisphere, the impact of the game going professional three years earlier had taken a toll, with so many players fleeing their Irish clubs and provinces to secure more attractive playing contracts in England.
At that time, the IRFU had only seen fit to award four full-time contracts per province as the game was only coming to terms with what professionalism was all about. For the vast majority of the players who had come through the amateur ranks, professionalism meant they were now being paid a few bob for doing what they always did.
South Africa were recovering from their shock series loss to the British and Irish Lions the previous summer and, under a new coach in Nick Mallet, would go on to record a world record 17 consecutive test wins. They were in a different league to us.
Irish rugby was playing catch-up but the seeds of change began to take hold after that tour when a policy decision was taken to get our best players back to Ireland to compete for their provinces in the newly-created Heineken Cup, which was beginning to attract the attention of the rugby public.
When the final whistle blew last Saturday night, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that it was South African rugby that now finds themselves on the back foot, playing catch up and looking towards Ireland as the model to reinvent themselves.
That situation arises from the fact that after only spending 18 months immersed in the Irish game, newly appointed Springbok director of rugby and head coach Rassie Erasmus has already begun to implement many of the structures he encountered in a similar role with Munster to influence change in his country. One of the many things crippling Springbok rugby at present is the fact that over 250 South African players are playing professionally in Europe. Local hero Stander, who has developed into a world class No 8 since moving to Ireland, is one of those.
Classified as too small to challenge for a place in a Springbok back row, he was encouraged to switch to hooker but chose instead to back himself and is now fully immersed in all things Munster and Ireland. South Africa’s loss has been Munster and Ireland’s gain, while a number of other potential Springboks have now been capped for a wide range of countries.
Just like Warren Gatland with Ireland back in 1998, Erasmus is now on a mission to entice a number of influential, overseas based, former or potential Springboks back home. The first to answer the call is Toulon No 8 Duane Vermeulen, who featured against Munster in the Champions Cup quarter final only a few weeks ago. There will be more to follow.
That isn’t good news for Ireland as, if all things go to form, the Springboks look set to be our quarter-final opponents in the World Cup in Japan next year. The big question however is, regardless of the number of overseas based players Erasmus manages to attract home, how many will he be able to pick on the starting Springbok team? Right now there is a strong political interference in the selection process of the South African side with a quota system in place targeting a 50/50 split of whites and coloured players in any Springbok squad.
Speaking to a former player at the game in George last Saturday night, he explained that, regardless of the status Erasmus holds in South African rugby, every side he picks requires ratification from a higher source. Imagine Joe Schmidt having to seek approval from our Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, to pick his preferred option at out half?
South African rugby also faces serious financial challenges having just posted a loss of €2.4 million in 2017. It was confirmed last Thursday that the South African Rugby Players Association lodged an application for the liquidation of the Border Rugby Union who, coincidentally, Ireland beat in the opening game of that 1998.
This comes at a time when the Western Province Rugby Union is in an ongoing legal dispute over their bankruptcy and rumours are circulating that the Blue Bulls are also on the verge of bankruptcy.
The investment in the bid to host the 2023 World Cup and in the membership of the two South African sides in the PRO14 was key to that pre-tax loss and that skewed SARU’s results, which would have shown a modest pre-tax profit but for the extraordinary items.
Interestingly, it was considered essential to grasp the opportunity to join the PRO14 as South African rugby has been keen to widen their playing options by competing in a northern hemisphere competition.
SARU are keen to explore the long-term opportunities that might offer. Their wishlist now is to retain four sides playing Super Rugby in the southern hemisphere and two in the PRO14 and eventually in the Champions Cup.
Part of the financial problem is that SARU currently has far too many contracted players on their books. When one takes into account the academy and development players spread out over the 14 different unions that make up South African rugby across the Currie Cup, PRO14 and Super rugby franchises, there are 750 players on some form of contract.
Ironic, therefore, that they struggle when it comes to putting together competitive sides. Many of their emerging young players are looking overseas for a professional career — witness the raised eyebrows recently when Munster attracted two South African’s straight out of school to link up with their academy.
Erasmus is looking to stop all this. By contracting far less players, SARU would be in a position to offer more lucrative contracts to their top players in an effort to keep them at home.
He is also keen to widen his options with regard to the selection of overseas-based players for the Springboks and is paving the way to sidestep the 30-cap rule introduced only last year whereby players with less than 30 Springbok caps would be ineligible for selection if they move abroad.
His powers of persuasion has already seen the executive committee of SARU agree to the breaking of the 30-cap rule where he can show valid reasons for doing so. He has also seen first hand the benefits of the strength and conditioning and player welfare programme’s that have contributed to the development of so many players under the IRFU’s umbrella and is looking to replicate that.
It remains to be seen whether it’s already too late for these structural changes to make the required improvements in time to influence the Springbok performances at the World Cup in 18 months time.
How ironic it would be if Ireland’s quest for that elusive World Cup semi-final slot was ultimately scuppered on the back of the intellectual rugby knowledge garnered by a key South African figure working within the IRFU structure.
How Irish would that prove.