The position of tight-head prop is considered, by those who know about these things, to be among the two or three most influential on a rugby field – so influential, indeed, that the South Africans have moved heaven and earth to retain the services of Cobus Visagie, the 27-year-old scrummaging technician from Stellenbosh. This amounts to a serious blow to the solar plexus for Leeds, this season's Premiership new boys, who were rather hoping that Visagie would land a few telling blows of his own on their behalf.
Visagie, who successfully appealed against a two-year suspension for alleged steroid abuse and has received formal International Board clearance to resume his career, had agreed a move from Western Province to West Yorkshire and was expected at Headingley next Monday. His fellow Cape Town-based Springbok, the goal-kicking midfielder Braam van Straaten, was also lured by Leeds, who saw the two men as the experienced backbone of a young, untested squad.
Unfortunately for Leeds, the reaction of the South African hierarchy was on the angry side of apoplectic. They accused the Yorkshiremen of procedural misdemeanours, declared the contracts null and void and organised meetings with both players. They also met Joost van der Westhuizen, the Springbok scrum-half, who had agreed a one-year deal with Newport and happened to be represented by the same agent as Visagie and Van Straaten.
"There is now clarity after a few misunderstandings," said Bruce Watson-Smith, general manager of the grandly named Springbok Business Unit, yesterday. "Cobus will play his rugby here in South Africa until 2003 and can now focus on his Currie Cup commitments with Western Province. Braam is contracted to the Boks until the end of the year and is available for selection for our forthcoming tour of Europe and America. We also had a very good discussion with Joost. We have given him a week to decide whether to stay in South Africa or take up the offer from Newport."
Last night, Leeds were considering their next move. Visagie seems lost to them, but there is nothing to suggest that Van Straaten will not honour his agreement to move to England, albeit much later than the Yorkshiremen originally hoped. Newport, meanwhile, were preparing for the worst. "The South African Rugby Football Union has made an offer of a new contract to Joost, and it is now down to him," said Tony Brown, the chairman and financier-in-chief at Rodney Parade, with an air of resignation. "If he does decide in favour of a move here, we would be delighted. But the last thing I want is for the player to make the move and feel unhappy."
In Canada, where amateurism still reigns supreme, the problems could hardly be more different. The senior Canadian Test players – Al Charron, John Tait, Dan Baugh, Morgan Williams et al – are threatening to withdraw from the forthcoming Tests against Australia, Ireland and Scotland in support of Dave Clark, who was recently sacked as national coach. Indeed, they say they will mount a picket line in Vancouver when the Wallabies come visiting. Clark's sin appears to have been one of acting outside his brief by pursuing sponsorship deals for an impoverished team without the say-so of union officials.