A week ago, the Newport senior vice-president and financier-in-chief Tony Brown thought he had surpassed his own achievement in bringing Gary Teichmann to Rodney Parade by landing one of the very biggest fish in the union pond: Joost van der Westhuizen, the South African scrum-half.
Brown was perfectly entitled to hold that opinion, for he had secured Van der Westhuizen's name on a legally binding contract, had followed the proper procedures and had seen the South African Rugby Football Union issue a statement confirming the departure of their former national captain. He had even paid a transfer fee to the Blue Bulls provincial union. Yesterday, however, Van der Westhuizen announced that he had changed his mind and would stay at home.
"I want to continue at Test level and I believe I have the ability to make it through to the 2003 World Cup," said the 30-year-old maestro from Pretoria. "Initially, I was excited at the prospect of a change of environment, and I understood that it would be possible to play for Newport before returning to South Africa and challenging for a Springbok place. However, the regulations here do not allow that. It was made clear to me that I would have to play my rugby in this country if I wanted to play for the Boks."
It is difficult not to feel sympathy for the crestfallen Brown, who apologised to Newport supporters for this latest turn of events. The Springbok hierarchy had assumed that Van der Westhuizen's eight-year international career would end after this summer's Tri-Nations tournament, but he performed impressively in helping his countrymen to a victory and a draw in the two matches against the Wallabies. It is hardly Brown's fault that the South Africans underestimated Van der Westhuizen's continuing value to their own Test team.
"I can only say that I have never worked harder to bring about a deal that would have considerably enhanced our playing strength," Brown commented yesterday. "Until recently, I felt confident that everything was in place: last Tuesday, I spoke with Joost and he again told me that he was looking forward to playing at Newport. Obviously, this is not now the case. Joost has a contract with Newport that would be enforceable in a court of law. Nevertheless, it would not be sensible to bring in a player who would be unhappy here."
This incident is merely the latest in a series of contractual brouhahas, and the question of what does and does not constitute an agreement, will have to be addressed as a matter of urgency by the International Rugby Board. During the summer, the England prop Julian White tried to extricate himself from a deal he had signed with Bristol and ended up on the wrong end of a High Court judgment. White made his Premiership debut for the West Country club three days ago. Last week, Leeds announced that another Test prop, the Springbok tight head Cobus Visagie, would be heading to Headingley. After a meeting with Sarfu, Visagie backed out.
The major southern hemisphere unions are deeply concerned at the drain of players to Europe: over the last 12 months, the New Zealanders have lost Isitolo Maka to Toulouse and Josh Kronfeld to Leicester; the Australians have seen Jim Williams depart for Munster and Joe Roff head off to Biarritz; and the South Africans have lost Charl Marais to Sale and are about to see Braam van Straaten link up with Leeds. All the same, a contract is a contract. Until players and their agents start taking responsibility for the signing of a name on a dotted line, the men in wigs will continue to enjoy a nice little earner from the union code.
Last night, the Newport chief executive Keith Grainger wrapped up the Van der Westhuizen affair with a few choice comments. "The words frustrated, disappointed and annoyed all come to mind," he said. "Tony Brown treats his players with 100 per cent respect and understanding. Joost's lack of respect for Tony has been shameful." Spot on, sir.