Wikus van Heerden says the last week at Saracens has been a nightmare.
The Premiership club has been the main talking point in world rugby over the past couple of weeks.
One sensed that trouble was brewing when Eddie Jones resigned from his post as the club’s director of rugby in February, citing personal reasons. It was, however, reported that Jones was not supportive of the club owners’ vision and business philosophies.
Former Springbok centre and current Stormers defence coach Brendan Venter was confirmed as Jones’ successor and it is believed that the club have a goal of recruiting a number of elite South African players to replace 17 current players whose contracts will be terminated at the end of the season. Both Van Heerden and his South African team-mate Brad Barritt have been retained.
Venter visited the club last Monday to outline his vision to the players and confront those who aren’t in his future plans. Many of those players are distraught, with Jones confirming that some – mostly veteran players – were in tears for most of last week.
The majority of the affected players have sought legal advice and are determined to take legal action against Saracens, despite the club insisting that they will be paid for the remainder of their contracts. Most have started to seek new clubs, but have found clubs unwilling to pay them what they are worth because they are aware that they are desperate for employment.
“This last week or so has been chaos at the club,” Springbok flanker Van Heerden told keo.co.za.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life. To Brendan’s credit he was direct and honest with all the boys. Obviously all of them are bitterly disappointed but the majority are taking it OK.
“There are, however, a few who are anti-change and therefore anti-Venter. But I suppose that is natural. We would be fools if we thought this is going to be a smooth transition. We’re dealing with people’s lives here. It’s no small matter.”
Van Heerden said he had no knowledge of rumoured negotiations with a number of elite South African players, but did concede that it was a distinct possibility.
“Johann Rupert [South African billionaire businessman who recently invested a reported £10 million in the club] has never made a secret of his desire to see more South Africans playing at Saracens,” he said.
“There are thousands of South Africans living and working in the UK, and to corner that market you have to have a product that is appealing to them.
“I’m not sure which players are coming in yet, but I’d imagine that one or two would have a relatively high profile. But to think a whole group of top South African players will come here is silly. You have to remember that there are other clubs competing for the signatures of the world’s best players and some of those clubs, particularly the French ones, are able to offer players a lot more than what they would earn here.”
In 2004 Rupert attempted to introduce an England-based, all-South African club into the Premiership. He planned to buy National League One club Wakefield and rename it “London Tribe”.
Rupert and his partner, the Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, would staff the new club chiefly with South Africans and attempt to win promotion. But The Rugby Football Union rejected the proposals on the principle that a club’s league status should not be put up for sale.
By Ryan Vrede