Frans Steyn’s benefit from an overseas rugby playing experience is further evidence of the changing landscape of South African rugby.
Francois Louw is a better player now than when he left Western Province for Bath. Percy Montgomery returned to South Africa a more accomplished player than the 50 Test veteran who left for Wales and who many accepted was past his best and would never again play Test rugby. Montgomery added 52 Tests to his CV, won the Tri Nations and was integral to South Africa winning the World Cup in 2007.
He never turned his back on South Africa. Montgomery was drained from the routine of Super Rugby, Test Rugby, Currie Cup Rugby and Test Rugby. He wanted to experience something else and he just needed a bit of time away from the public glare. Montgomery has often told me what his time in Wales taught him was to be a rugby professional and to assume the responsibility of the overseas professional. He said he grew up as a person but more so his rugby matured because he was taken out of his comfort zone.
Ditto Louw and ditto so many other South Africans who are currently playing in Europe, the United Kingdom and Ireland, and even in Japan.
It is the way of the modern game the our best players can command the highest salaries in European club rugby and it is not a crime for any young player to want to reap the financial rewards, experience a change of pace in life, grow as a person and by circumstance of experiencing new responsibility become a better rugby player.
The vitriol from within the South African rugby support base is a common package directed at any player who wants to experience an overseas stint. Immediately he is cast as the villain and immediately the local based player is put on a pedestal of loyalty to the national jersey and the national flag. It is absurd in the context of the evolution of the sport as a profession, and it betrays the incredible value to those players who at an early age experience the overseas influence and return to South Africa in their mid 20s so much wiser and adding so much more value to rugby teams in South Africa and to the national cause.
I’ve constantly been amazed at the ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude, especially when so much of the English Premiership, French Top 14 and Heineken Cup is shown on SuperSport, and that so many of the South African players are consistently the best performers.
Somewhere a misguided principle of patriotism has painted these South Africans as sinners to the cause of the South African game because their talent allows for interest and lucrative financial reward from Europe’s wealthiest clubs.
Ronaldo did not sell out to Portugal soccer because he earns his monthly salary at the club prepared to pay him his market value and more. The same applies to every South African soccer talent that is overseas based. I don’t want this misinterpreted as saying being based overseas makes a player automatically better than what is based in this country but why choose one or the other when the option should be to choose both or make an informed national selection based on player pedigree and form and not where the player is based.
Steyn won a World Cup at the age of 20. He had won a Tri Nations and a British and Irish Lions series at the age of 22. He needed something to rekindle the enthusiasm of the schoolboy who won his first Test cap a year after finishing his schooling. He went to Paris very much a young man with a sheltered view of the world and return a mature young man with a very different view of the world, of his own country and of his responsibility to his chosen profession.
Steyn, had he stayed in South Africa, may at 26 years old have been considering giving it all up and playing out the final four years of his career in a less demanding Japanese club environment for huge financial gain. He may have given up on the ideal of Bok rugby and contributing to rugby within South Africa because seven successive years of scrutiny and intensity within the South African rugby landscape had drained him and left him exhausted, fatigued and flat.
His move to France turned a boy into the man who John Plumtree has now entrusted with the captaincy at the Sharks.
Plumtree said Steyn was a leader of men, a player with vast experience, in South Africa and abroad, and a winner. He also knew what it meant to be a professional.
It is a fantastic endorsement from Plumtree but also reward for a player who never betrayed South African rugby and also never betrayed his love for the game. Instead he recognised what he needed to reinvent his enthusiasm and to challenge his comfort zone.
Steyn is just one example of how leaving South Africa for a short term gave him an appetite for a longer contribution to the game in South Africa.
Steyn’s story is one that hopefully continues to challenge the outdated and simply outrageous belief that a player who leaves South Africa to play abroad sells out on South African rugby and should be treated as a traitor. Judge a South African player on what he offers this country’s national rugby and not on the country in which he decides to get reward for his rugby talent.
Supporter mindsets must change because the professional status of the player has ensured that their mindsets also had to change.
By Mark Keohane