As certain as swallows leaving Africa for Europe in springtime, the passage of Southern Hemisphere players heading north in search of a golden handshake from the game of rugby is nothing new. Jonah Lomu at Marseilles, Xavier Rush at Cardiff Blues, Chris Latham at Worcester...the current crop could form an extensive list. But it hardly ever happens the other way around. Well, not unless you are Andy Goode.
Having left Brive at the end of February, the English No 10 is midway though a peculiar spell at Durban's Super 14 team the Sharks. Today, after five away matches, he plays his first home game. At the end of next month, he comes back to England, to join Worcester. But for now, he is enjoying a rare experience in South Africa indeed, and after becoming an irregular starter at Brive, and slipping behind Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood in the Red Rose order, he may just be hoping to revive his career, too.
"My first few days with the Sharks was daunting," he admits. "Out of the bright blue you suddenly land up amongst total strangers, although you have seen a good few of them on TV. But the Afrikaans guys were brilliant. I would walk into a room, where a group of them were playing cards and talking away in their first language and they would immediately switch to English, their second language, put an arm around me and welcome me with big smiles, and carry on without so much as a blink. I have huge respect for these South African boys and their humility.
"When we got back from tour to Durban, John Smit, the World Cup-winning captain, invited me to dinner at his home with his family and said: 'Welcome, you are one of us.'"
Today, alongside making that home debut, Goode turns 30 – as indeed does Smit. The gift that both most want is a win for the Sharks' against the visiting Queensland Reds. The Sharks are way off where they should be in the Super 14 table (10th) given that most of their team are Springboks, and Goode is desperately keen to play a role in a climb towards a semi-final place next month, not just for the sake of his new team-mates but because Martin Johnson and company may well still have an eye on his progress. "Brian Smith [the England attack coach] told me he wished more English players would play Super 14 and that the coaches will be watching how I get on with keen interest," Goode says.
In the meantime, he is set up in an apartment in the affluent suburb of Umhlanga Rocks, overlooking the Indian Ocean. Autumn in Durban is the best time of year for the east-coast city. The crippling humidity of January and February have given way to crisp, sunny days where the temperature is a tolerable 28 degrees or so. Brive may have its attractions but Durban in April is just about as good as life can get for a rugby player. As Goode's predecessor at the Sharks, Frédéric Michalak, once said: "I wake up early in the morning and watch the sun rise over a calm, blue sea. I watch the surfers. We train hard all week and at the weekend 40,000 cheer us on, and after the game we barbecue on the fields around Kings Park, with the stars shining down on us. The players here don't know how lucky they are."
But despite Danny Cipriani's move Down Under to Melbourne, anyone expecting Goode to be trailblazing a path for other English players ought to wait a while and see. There is one off-putting factor.
"When Sharks called, I didn't have a second thought," says Goode. "I told my good mate Geordan Murphy [the Ireland full-back] about the opportunity and he said he would give his right arm to join me. He had been offered a contract to play for the Crusaders a few years ago but chose country over Super 14. He did not want to jeopardise his Ireland career, plus he would have had to take a pay cut."
A player in the international frame would not want to remove himself from the selectors' spotlight and there is the very real issue of Southern Hemisphere salaries being seriously inferior, with 11 South African rand converting to one pound.
For the Sharks, the background to Goode's recruitment was black humour bordering on the farcical. Last year, their grand signing had been the Argentine fly-half Juan Marin Hernandez, who had been one of the revelations of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and late last year he played quite brilliantly for the Sharks in their domestic competition, the Currie Cup.
The curious thing is that he went home to Buenos Aires for Christmas and never came back. He had complained of a back ache in the Currie Cup but the next thing the Sharks heard he had undergone back surgery and was out of rugby for six months.
They then looked to a young local fly-half called Steve Meyer, who had been through their junior ranks and was doing all right for Perpignan. The French club agreed to release Meyer and back he came to Durban where he trained with enthusiasm only to suddenly announce his retirement from rugby just three days before the Sharks' opening Super 14 match, against the Waikato Chiefs in Durban. He never gave an explanation, though concern about the state of his knees was thought to be at the root of it. The Sharks' recruiting office worked round the clock and proffered the name of Goode to coach John Plumtree. The No 10 went from Brive to Christchurch in the matter of a few days of frantic negotiation, going into a competition where in 15 years of Super 12, or Super 14 rugby, the only other Englishman to go before him was Kevin Yates, who played prop for the Wellington Hurricanes a decade ago.
After a phone call or two from Durban, and 18 hours of flying, he was suddenly in a Sharks squad packed with Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks and four days out from playing an All Black-studded Crusaders team in his first game in New Zealand that boasted quite possibly the world's best players in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter (both have won IRB awards for Player of the Year). Talk about being yanked out of fading limelight and thrust into the Southern Hemisphere spotlight.
Goode said from Christchurch at the time: "I don't care if this sounds like a cliché but this really is the surreal scenario where you pinch yourself every five minutes. In my wildest dreams I never imagined taking part in a Super 14 match in Christchurch between teams packed with Springboks and All Blacks."
And the fans? Well, they set their standards high in Durban. The jury's out. In his first match Goode came off the bench. After four games he's getting better, but has needed to adjust. Super 14 is played fast, and in front of around 36,000 Sharks fans – it's about as stiff a test as they come. But impressing the locals – and maybe Martin Johnson too – would be make for a very happy birthday indeed.
Flying half: Goode's career
*Andrew James Goode
Born 3 April, 1980, Coventry
Height 5ft 11in
Weight 14st 13lb
1998-2002: Leicester Tigers
2003-08: Leicester Tigers
*17 caps for England, 107 points
*Goode made his Test debut against Italy at Twickenham in March 2005, coming on as a replacement in the 39-7 Six Nations victory
*The fly-half will join Worcester for the start of next seasonReuse content