Saracens have developed a penchant for poaching South Africa’s forgotten men and turning them into English Premiership superstars.
Saracens’ most recent acquisition, Sharks centre Brad Barritt, follows after they sealed the deal to bring Springbok openside flanker Wikus van Heerden to Vicarage Road earlier this year.
Prior to that, Saracens swooped for the Stormers tighthead prop Cobus Visagie, who has dominated opponents throughout his career there, Neil de Kock, who is the current Premiership Player of the Year and Brent Russell, who shone after injury had curtailed his involvement early in the 2008/09 season.
Saracens are building a formidable team with a distinctly South African flavour. The most disconcerting thing from a South African perspective is that these players who are driving their push for domestic and European silverware are in the prime of their careers and should be strengthening our domestic game and challenging for Springbok places.
Barritt, 21, becomes the most prominent and talented of a growing list of young South African players seeking to further their careers abroad. His transfer was engineered by Saracens director of rugby, Eddie Jones, who made his initial approach in the latter stages of the Super 14.
At the time, Barritt was unable to command a place in the starting line-up and was then inexplicably axed for their semi-final against the Blues, with Frans Steyn favoured at inside centre. Barritt, however, insists that that treatment had no bearing on his decision to leave.
“People may think that but I’ve got no sour feelings towards the Sharks for the way I was treated,” he told keo.co.za. “John Plumtree told me I would be the number one 12 [for the Currie Cup and 2009 Super 14]. The coaching staff said that after the Super 14 they’d seen that they may have made a mistake in leaving me out and were very keen to have me stay.
“There’s nothing negative or no resentment in me towards the Sharks or South Africa,” he continued. “This is just an opportunity for a young player like me to learn and improve in different conditions. I haven’t experienced the European style of play and going over there can only refine my game. That’s my thinking. By stepping out of a comfort zone and putting myself into a situation that forces me to adapt can only make me a better player.”
Barritt, whose grandparents are both English and whose parents carry British passports, would be eligible for England selection immediately. The reality is that Barritt could well line up for England at Twickenham against the Springboks on November 22, as well as tour the Republic with the British & Irish Lions in 2009.
The RFU are fully aware of his ability, seen from the fact that they invited him to an England U19 training camp while he was in Bath considering the option of studying and playing for Bath University in 2004.
Barritt, however, refuted the suggestion that he was targeting a future with England.
“That’s being very presumptuous and thinking too far ahead,” he said. “I’m a South African boy and [playing for the Springboks] will be a dream come true if it were to happen. I would jump at the opportunity.
“What’s more, by going there with intentions of playing for England I will fall short. My short-term goal is to establish myself with Saracens. If in future an opportunity arises with England, I’ll cross that bridge then.”
Barritt is acutely aware Springbok coach Peter de Villiers has regularly voiced his preference for locally based players and that the move could jeopardise a Springbok call-up in future.
“Rugby has become a global game. If there’s an opportunity for a guy in Europe that he thinks can better him as a player, I don’t think it should be held against him,” was his response when asked if he knew he was taking a step back in the Springbok pecking order. “In my case it’s not me being disloyal in any way. I determine my own future and it’s a choice I made for the betterment of myself.
“I played under Peter [De Villiers] at U21 level and with the Emerging Springboks last year and I really enjoyed the atmosphere he created and his management style. I’ve got no ill feelings towards Peter for not selecting me. Every coach has his preferences. But if there is a role for me in future then I’d love nothing more than to play for my country.”
Barritt’s loss is a massive one for South African rugby. Ninety-eight cap Springbok Percy Montgomery told this website’s Mark Keohane that Barritt would be the first player he’d select in his backline, such was his ability and organisational skills.
But you can bank on the fact that he won’t be the last prominent player to head to Saracens.
Investment group SAIL has strong ties with all of the ‘Big Five’ provincial unions, particularly the Bulls, and are a major investor in Saracens. They’ve been known to be at the forefront of transfer negotiations for some top South African players to European clubs. Combine this with Jones’s knowledge of and familiarity with South Africa’s elite players, gained through a stint as a technical adviser to the Springboks in 2006, and Saracens’ future could feature many more Barritt-like coups.
By Ryan Vrede