When Thinus Delport scored a match-winning try for Worcester against Gloucester a couple of weeks ago it was one of his happiest moments as an overseas player in English rugby, and his only regret as he prepares to head off to a Japanese club in the summer is that there should have been more. The former Springbok has loved his six years here, but he is keen to share a few home truths about the Premiership's s hortcomings before he goes.
Delport's strong views on the divisive issues of promotion and relegation, foreign players and the quality of rugby are timely in the week that English rugby's new Professional Game Board met for the first time. Martin Johnson was absent but Martyn Thomas and Francis Baron from the RFU were among those who got cracking on the latest attempt to make club and country more harmonious.
Without automatic promotion, Worcester might not be in the Premiership at all. But Delport, a 33-year-old full-back/wing with 18 South Africa caps, is adamant that the threat of relegation stunts the quality of rugby and short-changes spectators. "Relegation brings negative play because you've got this massive pressure of survival," said Delport.
"If you lose you go down, and you might lose your contract. Compare it with the Super 14. The bottom sides will play good, positive, adventurous rugby and try to get wins, because they know they will be there next year. The supporters [in England] don't always get the quality. Of course there's a tense atmosphere because of the threat of relegation, and that can be exciting. But it's not the type of rugby the people really want to see."
In Delport's four seasons with Worcester after he moved from Gloucester, he has grown accustomed to a gut-churning feeling as the relegation battle bites. "Every year around January or February the pressure has come on. There's a lot of friction and tension between coaches and players – and team-mates. If you get a few wins, it's brilliant, you get closer to each other. But if you lose there's infighting. There have been a lot of rumours in previous years of infighting at clubs who have gone down, and guys being sacked because they weren't seeing eye to eye on how they should play."
A single promotion place is enshrined in the RFU/clubs agreement which starts formally on 1 July. But Delport accuses the authorities of shying away from the "radical" step of expanding the Premiership. He sympathises with ambitious National League One clubs stymied by the parachute payments given to the solitary relegated club. Moreover, in the win-at-all-costs Premiership climate, Delport believes, English talent withers on the vine; top internationals overplayed, kids underplayed.
All but safe from relegation, Worcester were able to pick a raft of youngsters at Wasps yesterday, including the 20-year-old Chris Pennell in Delport's place. "That doesn't happen often enough," Delport said. "There's a remarkable number of foreign players here. Yes, the English youngsters can learn from them, but they need to actually introduce these things on the field and they don't get the opportunity. I feel sorry for some of the young guys. All they do is train, train, train – and they might go two months without even getting a game.
"There's a Monday-night A-league where games don't get played or some clubs fill their sides with borrowed players. Players go on loan to First Division clubs but it's too inconsistent. How do they develop to become better players sitting on the training paddock? They are as fit as anything, but that doesn't help you make decisions on the pitch."
Delport is unabashed that overseas players come to England principally for the money. A good provincial contract in South Africa is worth about 800,000 rand (about £52,000) and compares poorly with the £120,000 to £140,000 a good ex-Springbok could earn here. "It's a big challenge for this Professional Game Board to make," Delport said, "to decide how English youngsters get exposed to enough rugby."
Delport got engaged to his girlfriend Laura last weekend and they will share the adventure when he joins Kobe Steel. The popular South African will leave behind a thriving club with the "house full" signs up at almost every match, but trapped in a system failing its players and fans.Reuse content