Counting the cost

Springbok players who sign overseas contracts can’t complain about fatigue because in doing so, they are consciously agreeing to play more rugby.

Butch James’s concerns expressed in The Guardian this weekend around the number of games elite players are required to participate in is both understandable and valid. However, what he fails to note is that he was acutely aware he was sacrificing an off season, albeit a limited one, by signing with Bath.

James played a sum total of 16 matches for Bath in their 2007/08 campaign totaling 1 280 minutes, a further 650 minutes over nine Tests for the Springboks in 2008 and 160 minutes for Bath in their 2008/09 season. You don’t have to be a sports scientist to know that 2 090 minutes of game time over 27 matches is too much rugby (especially for a player with a history of injuries) and that the player will not function at an optimal level.

James’s form was consistently questioned during the Tri-Nations and many called for his omission. I wrote at the time that it was a personal belief that James’ slump in form was due to exhaustion and that it was having a significant impact on technical aspects of his game.

James responded to a text message I sent prior to the Test against Argentina saying that he believed he would improve for the remainder of the season. That improvement, if there was one, was minimal. He was clearly physically exhausted and as a result, was but a shadow of the player who excelled at the World Cup in 2007.

Herein lies the lesson for any Springbok looking to continue a career in Europe, while still harbouring ambitions to play Test rugby: count the cost while you count the pounds and euros.

There can be no complaints about fatigue because in signing a lucrative deal, you’re effectively signing away any opportunity for rest and recuperation.

Yes the schedule is ridiculous and the IRB need to be held accountable for exploiting their prime assets in an effort to swell their coffers.

But that situation is unlikely to change in the near future. In fact, there are moves afoot to expand the Super 14 and Tri-Nations in future, and the players are aware of this. They therefore have no right to recourse. Player agents also need to develop a greater appreciation for the sustainability of their clients’ careers. The fat commission earned from securing a deal with a European club should be a secondary consideration.

As James told The Guardian: “There are a lot of guys at home [in South Africa] who started their Test careers very young and you can see how sore their bodies are.

“I don’t think there’s any way they’ll still be going into their early thirties. Someone like Schalk Burger really throws his body around in every single game. I don’t think he’s going to be able to play much beyond 28 if he wants to play with his kids one day.”

James’s prediction is probably accurate but Burger (and other elite Springboks), in this instance, have a simple decision to make: see out their careers in South Africa and play until their early to mid-30s, or land a lucrative European deal but be forced to quit at 28. Most will never have to work another day in their lives but the cost will be huge.

That’s the reality and one they’ll have to face should they opt to venture abroad.

By Ryan Vrede