Out of South Africa, a new-look Northampton
'It's a plus for the Premiership. The South African boys are quality players and individuals': Alan Solomons
Sunday 29 August 2004
The proposed South African takeover of an English club may have bitten the dust, but a scaled-down version has been perpetrated at North-ampton. Not that there is any suggestion of stealth or insurrection, unlike some stories emerging from Cape Town this week. The powers that be at Franklin's Gardens have voluntarily plundered the Republic in a bid to rid themselves of a reputation as Premiership also-rans.
After finishing in the top five in each of the past six years, but never as champions and in second place only once, Northampton waved Wayne Smith back off to New Zealand in the summer, and took on Alan Solomons as head coach. Five more South Africans joined as players, led by the recent Springbok captain Corne Krige.
The plans of the so-called London Tribe to tap into the riches of English rugby were thwarted a fortnight ago when the Rugby Football Union blocked the uprooting of a club from one part of the country to another. But the brawn drain from one hemisphere to another is a matter over which the RFU have less control.
Solomons, born on the Eastern Cape, was a lawyer in Cape Town until he turned to coaching full-time with Western Province and latterly Ulster. He is bullish about the overseas influence.
"I think it's a plus for the Premiership," Solomons says. "All the sides contain a strong foreign element and Martin Johnson, in his autobiography, summed it up very well. He felt the cross-pollination was the major factor in England winning the World Cup and lifting the standard of dom-estic rugby throughout. The South African boys that have been brought into Northampton are quality rugby players and quality individuals, and I believe they will be an asset."
As one dressing-room door opened, another closed behind Matt Dawson, now with Wasps. The provenance of the suggestion that Saints' World Cup winning scrum-half flatly refused to hook up with Krige, who elbowed and booted his way around Twickenham against England 21 months ago, is uncertain.
What is clear is that most Premiership clubs, anxious not to be left short during the autumn and spring international windows, are signing anyone but Englishmen. Throw in the Kolpac ruling, which allows equal working rights in the European Union to South Africans and others, and the temptation to look elsewhere is powerful.
Is Johnson correct, or might the England team eventually suffer as a result? "There are 12 clubs," argues Solomons, "and if 50 per cent of the teams each week are England-qualified, that's around 100 players for Clive Woodward to choose from. Then you have the Zurich A League, which is almost entirely full of England-qualified players and, the other directors of rugby tell me, is the equivalent of the Premiership five years ago."
Krige, 29, is the fifth ex-skipper of the Boks in the open era to make the lucrative swap of rand for pound. Francois Pienaar, Gary Teichmann, Andre Vos and Bobby Skinstad joined the drift out of Africa. In sporting terms at least, the arrival of Krige - quick, abrasive and 18 times his country's leader - should be a boon for Premiership spectators.
"The Springbok coach and the Springbok captain are two positions where it's only a matter of time before you get fired," Krige says. "I resigned before that happened. I think I had two years of international rugby left in me, but it's time for a new challenge."
Unlike Solomons, who is confident of the strength in depth in his homeland, Krige believes the Republic should be concerned. "The problem is that so many players who could still play international rugby are leaving," he says. "Not only that, but those players are playing better rugby here than in South Africa.
"Percy Montgomery was getting booed in all the stadiums. Now he's spent a season or two in Wales and he's in the form of his life. Jaco van der Westhuyzen had an unbelievable six months with Leicester. Why would a player perform better away from home, away from his family and friends, in weather that doesn't really suit us?"
If part of the answer lies in the Premiership's cosmopoli-tan mix, Northampton should go a long way. Krige will fill the openside vacancy left by the retirement through injury of Budge Pountney.
The latter's presence among Northampton's backroom staff, together with Paul Larkin and fitness coach Tim Exeter, is, says Solomons, evidence of continuity. The departure of 21 players and coaches overall suggests the contrary.
Two more Boks - Selborne Boome and Robbie Kempson - will bolster the front five, while the uncapped wing Wylie Human and hooker Johan van Wyk are alongside the Australian inside-centre Marc Stcherbina and Damien Browne, a lock from Connacht, in vying for selection against Bath on Saturday.
A coincidence it may be, but Northampton's new jersey features less black and gold than of old, and much more South African green.
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