The best rugby players in South Africa are being lined up and approached for lucrative moves abroad despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
This stems from the 21-day contract window that was driven by the SA Rugby Industry and MyPlayers – a clause that allows all professional players three weeks to get out of their current contracts with their unions and franchises should they want to do so after pay cuts were announced last week.
It forms part of SA Rugby’s attempts at cutting costs across the board in an effort to save up to R1 billion by the end of the year as the economic impact of the coronavirus becomes more severe with each passing week.
Organised sport of any kind remains banned in South Africa as part of the nationwide lockdown, and it is difficult to see competitive professional rugby returning anytime soon.
Bulls centre Johnny Kotze was the first high-profile player to trigger the clause as he announced his intentions to leave Loftus Versfeld, but Sport24 understands that there have been several enquiries made into some of the country’s best, including 2019 World Cup winners.
There has been interest around 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit, and the Stormers are anticipating a fight on their hands if they are to hold onto their MVP with clubs in France and Japan having made enquiries.
Du Toit was heavily linked with a move to Harlequins late last year while other European clubs were also interested.
Of the 33 players who were part of the Springboks’ World Cup-winning squad in Japan, just 14 remain based in the country after the exodus abroad that transpired at the end of 2019.
The Stormers have seven of those players on their books and had to fight hard for them at the end of 2019 with former CEO Paul Zacks and current head coach John Dobson instrumental in securing the services of players like Bok skipper Siya Kolisi, Du Toit, Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe.
While more lucrative offers awaited them in Europe and Japan, these players opted to stay in South Africa with the prospect of one final season at Newlands – the Stormers are set to move to Cape Town Stadium from 2021 – and the British & Irish Lions tour next year also contributing factors.
Now, under the current rules of the three-week window, players will have to revisit their options and if more lucrative deals come around in this time of financial uncertainty, they will have to be considered.
It creates a situation where South Africa could lose even more of its star attractions and franchises are currently busier than ever in an effort to hold onto their prized assets.
The Stormers are understood to be exploring their options to push back against the clause with one of their main areas of concern being the stipulation that they cannot increase their salary offerings for their players after other offers have come in.
It leaves the franchises somewhat powerless in this process, and this has, all of a sudden, become a busy time for agents.
There is, of course, no rugby happening in Europe either and the French domestic season has been scrapped for the year.
The opportunity to make a move at some of the best in the business, though, is something that clubs will pursue with the future in mind.
The contract window expires on 14 May and while that makes for a potentially frantic two weeks, one local administrator at franchise level told Sport24 that players who wanted to leave might wait until 13 May to break the news to their current employers. That way, they would sidestep any awkward negotiations. It could create a never-before seen ‘transfer deadline day’ of sorts for South African rugby.
The Sharks have a total of four World Cup winners on their books, including final heroes Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am.
Mapimpi is also understood to be hot property.
“It’s not ideal in terms of trying to keep players in this country and to keep domestic levels at the where we need to be,” Stormers coach John Dobson said.
“But these are really extraordinary times that the industry has not faced before, so everyone is trying to find their feet.
“We will be doing our best to retain who we can.”