Skinstad 'sabbatical' opens route to Britain

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The Independent Online

Bobby Skinstad, one of the great lost talents of modern rugby, has opted out of the game in his native South Africa, the great lost nation, for an indefinite period, fuelling speculation that he will soon join some of his Test-playing peers - Mark Andrews, Andre Vos, Percy Montgomery, Robbie Kempson, Cobus Visagie, Robbie Fleck, Pieter Muller and Naka Drotske, to name but a few - in Britain.

It seemed just a little rich that the most talked-about Springbok of his generation should declare his intention to take an "immediate sabbatical" from the demands of Super 12 and Currie Cup rugby, given that his public appearances in recent seasons have been about as frequent as J D Salinger's, but Skinstad has never been slow to plough his own furrow. "I am not closing any doors," he said, "and may, in the future, look to play for South Africa again." That, at least, was good of him.

Skinstad is unquestionably a world-class loose forward and his unique footballing talent, combined with a lavish lifestyle that cast him in a rather dodgy light as South Africa's answer to David Beckham, ensured that the embittered hard-heads of the Springbok game gave him a rough ride whenever they worked out a means of laying a hand on him. He has interests in an advertising agency as well as a glitzy bar in Cape Town, and he recently tried his hand at television presentation. One way or another, he has been far too busy to pull on a pair of boots.

But rugby is his best and biggest meal ticket and the prospect of a big-money deal with an English Premiership club may be too attractive to turn down. Saracens, who would have been immediate candidates for his signature this time last year, signed the former All Black captain Taine Randell in the summer and they may now resist the temptation to bid. However, London Irish and Leeds could well be in the market, assuming that Skinstad can offer some assurances concerning his highly questionable fitness record.

Happily for a national union strung out by controversy over the last six months - the Geo Cronje racism scandal, the World Cup boot camp farrago and the sacking of Rudi Straeuli as the Springbok coach have made the South Africans the laughing stock of the world game - there was some positive news yesterday. Andre Markgraaf, a fairly controversial figure himself but by far the most experienced of the four men on the shortlist to replace Straeuli, has re-declared his availability after spending a sombre Christmas dealing with the emotional and practical consequences of family tragedy.

Markgraaf was eager to accept a nomination in the immediate aftermath of Straeuli's departure, but then withdrew his name following the sudden death of his brother. After careful reflection, he is now "back in the hat", as he put it. Together with those of the other three contenders - the seven-a-side coach Chester Williams, the successful Blue Bulls coach, Heyneke Meyer, and the little-known outsider from the Border province, Damisari Mhani - Markgraaf's credentials will be discussed at a meeting of SA Rugby, the professional wing of the sport in the republic, on Thursday. An appointment will be announced at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, the Newcastle wing Michael Stephenson will be out of commission for between four and six weeks after dislocating his elbow during his club's narrow Premiership defeat by Harlequins on Sunday. In France, the long-serving international lock Fabien Pelous is expected to miss a similar amount of rugby. Pelous strained knee ligaments while playing for Toulouse against Biarritz at the weekend.