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Stephen Nell | Columnist Index
Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
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North continuing to stunt talent growth
Stephen Nell
May 12, 2009
Lions hooker Ethienne Reynecke powers forward, Lions v Brumbies, Super 14, Canberra Stadium, April 29, 2008
Lions hooker Ethienne Reynecke is set to join Saracens - but at what cost to English talent? © Getty Images
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Tournaments/Tours: Super 14

What exactly is it about relatively mediocre players in the Southern Hemisphere that holds such immense appeal to rugby clubs in England and France?

Just recently I read a confirmation of my own speculation weeks ago that Saracens chasing the signature of Golden Lions hooker Ethienne Reynecke. Now I don't mean to target Reynecke and I am merely using him as an example to illustrate a point. He may well turn out to be an astute acquisition and in that case I will happily offer my congratulations.

Nevertheless, Reynecke is no more than a solid and completely unspectacular provincial player in South Africa and does not make the Lions side ahead of Willie Wepener. If you're an English club side, that should surely mean you should be blooding a young English player rather than signing him. Sure, he may be able to add value, but at what cost to English rugby?

Make no mistake, Saracens have some fine South African players in Neil de Kock, Wikus van Heerden and Cobus Visagie. Rumour has it they are getting another in hooker Schalk Brits. These are quality rugby players and will add value in any league. I believe they are also getting a fine and passionate individual in Brendan Venter as director of rugby.

However, Reynecke is just an example of something that is a major bugbear of mine and must surely worry English rugby authorities. Surely the quality of young rugby player in England is such that their clubs don't have to come shop around in South Africa. Or is it because the power of the pound offers the opportunity of bargain-basement buys?

Look around at European leagues and you will see many examples of players that are not quite good enough or has-beens from the Southern Hemisphere representing clubs. If you consider the facts, it may just offer a clue as to why New Zealand, South Africa and Australia occupy the top three spots in the world rankings.

In South Africa we limit the number of foreigners to two per Super14 side. The Stormers have giant Fijian Sireli Naqelevuki in their ranks, but even that is frowned upon as he is being fielded ahead of some good local talent. Not even Frenchman Frederic Michalak was considered a particularly shrewd investment by the Sharks, as his presence merely frustrated the development of highly promising South Africans such as Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn.

The question I therefore put to rugby clubs in the northern hemisphere is: Whose future are you blocking up north when you erode the depth down south? Does anybody ever pause to think about the implications for rugby in their own country, or is it merely a cheap but ultimately extremely short-sighted way of getting the books to balance?

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South Africa are experiencing a slight injury-crisis ahead of the British and Irish Lions tour. Fullback Conrad Jantjes broke his leg and the informed speculation is that Jaque Fourie will be tasked with wearing the No 15 jersey. That's if centre Adrian Jacobs can play through the pain barrier with an injured shoulder.

Also still recovering from injuries are Jean de Villiers, Andries Bekker, Schalk Burger and Fourie du Preez. Frans Steyn looks set to miss the series with a knee injury. It will be interesting indeed to see what kind of toll the remaining few weeks of the Super14 extracts on South Africa's top players.

Perhaps there might be a secret sigh of relief from the national selectors at the fact that the Sharks' Super 14 campaign appears to be derailing. It will certainly shield a number of key players from injury risk if the Sharks don't make it to the play-offs.

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