It has been labelled one of the sorriest transfer sagas in modern rugby history, but what have we learnt from Johan Goosen’s move to Montpellier? This feature first appeared in Rugby world magazine in October.
IN A REPEAT of last season’s Top 14 final, reigning champions Castres faced Montpellier in round one of this season’s competition. Again, Castres triumphed. Yet there was something different this time.
At 15 for Montpellier was Johan Goosen. The South African, who can play ten, full-back and centre, shot back into the international consciousness in 2015-16. Having starred for Racing 92 that season, he was picked by the Springboks in August 2016 – earning his seventh cap and his first since November 2014. He would end up playing six more times for them before the year was out.
In October that year, Goosen was also named as the best player of the Top 14’s 2015-16 season, beating Racing team-mate Dan Carter, and Toulon’s Fijian wing Josua Tuisova to the title.
Yet these career-high moments are not what he has become famous for – or should that be infamous. It was his actions in mid-December 2016 when he announced he was retiring from rugby, and thus leaving Racing, aged just 24. He was quitting the game, it was announced, so he could become a commercial director at a saddle-horse stud farm back home in Bloemfontein.
It was something of an open secret in France that Goosen wanted out of his freshly-signed deal, but few could have predicted he’d step away from the game of rugby entirely to escape it.
At the time Racing’s president Jacky Lorenzetti publicly said: “We regret that so obviously talented a young player has been misguided and abandoned professional rugby.
“Racing 92 reserves the right for a judicial follow-up to both Johan Goosen and those who advise him.”
How long did the exile from rugby last? By February 2018, French publications reported that a deal had been done between Racing and Montpellier, the latter club – owned by mega-wealthy Mohed Altrad – paying €1.5m (£1.3m) to secure Goosen’s services for the following season.
In March 2018, he was in training kit, running around with the Cheetahs of Bloemfontein – where he had previously played 27 times in Super Rugby – with the franchise announcing that he would train with them until June.
By April, Goosen played for them in a Guinness Pro14 fixture against Munster.
In all, thanks to this fleeting retirement, there were 15 months between games for Goosen and more than 18 months between Top 14 fixtures.
The dust may never truly settle on this transfer affair, but some are taking stock. In a recent interview with Midi Olympique in France, Goosen said of his ‘retirement’ move: “It was madness. I made a mistake. But that’s life. Paradoxically, I have also grown a lot over the past two years. I emptied my head and allowed my body time to recover…
“I went through bad times. I was very sad. I thought all of this would never end. Sometimes I said to myself, ‘Maybe I should go back to Racing?’ And at other times, I was persuaded that going back wouldn’t do me any good. I was lost.
“If a player is in my situation, I would say to him, ‘Do not do it, you will regret it. The price to pay is too heavy.’”
Goosen went on to say that he yearned for wide, open spaces: “I am South African, I need space and, in the suburbs of Paris, the buildings are so close to each other that I felt like I was choking. I had the uncomfortable feeling of living in a box. The worst part is that my son was also very unhappy.
“Because I was very unhappy off the pitch, I could not have stayed for five more years (at Racing)… Money has nothing to do with it. I wanted another life, the sun, the space and the nature. I’ll have all this in Montpellier.”
Responding to the comments, recently retired Racing and France back-row Yannick Nyanga has his doubts about it.
Nyanga tells Rugby World of Goosen’s stated reasons for leaving Paris: “I think it’s a farce. Nobody believed it. It was all quite ridiculous and retiring cost him a lot. One year (plus) without playing is huge – it’ll take time for him to get back on to his best level of playing.
“At first we were all surprised when he left because we didn’t expect that. He had a big deal with Racing and he had only just finished his first year.
“I perfectly understand anyone’s reasons for leaving because high-level sport is also a business. I’m a football fan too. I see players leaving clubs every season because they double their pay, the club get money from the transfers and then other players raise their pay. That’s the business.
“But I don’t know if other players will use this (retiring like Goosen has) because it means not playing for a year. It will cost a lot, and at the end of the day I’m not sure that it is worth it.”
Adding a counter to Nyanga’s stated scepticism is Gerbrandt Grobler. He was also at Racing at the time and had a history of playing against Goosen during their high-school years in South Africa.
“He is a good human being,” the now Gloucester lock says, providing a character reference. “Obviously his (retiring) was not the right decision,
to breach contract, but I support him. He’s my friend. It’s tough because he is a great man and he only did what is best for his friends and family. Life
is too short to be unhappy.
“He wanted his freedom. He wanted his son to grow up on a farm. He wanted his space. He is a man who grew up on a farm, but we are not talking about a small place with a few goats and a sheep. It’s Africa, man!”
Focusing on the rugby, does Grobler believe the deadly kicker will be a star at Montpellier? “Of course. He’s a great player who makes things happen. You are more confident with him in your team than playing against him.”
For all of the drawn-out drama here, a few select sources within the game give a sense that this saga was a one-off.
Rugby World understands that Goosen signed a lucrative contract extension with Racing between March and April 2016 that was worth a minimum of €500,000 a year, rising potentially to €600,000 with performance bonuses. Having then sought some outside counsel after his award win and playing in the 2016 Rugby Championship for South Africa, the player took the decision to ‘retire’.
Related: Top 14 transfers for season 2018/19
According to an informed source, who wishes to remain anonymous: “Goosen had a €1m ‘transfer fee’ written into his Racing agreement then, so if anybody wanted to sign him they had to pay Racing €1m. That became the sticking point.
“Then there was all the stuff about him going to take off 18 months and going to the farm and retiring from rugby, which was just obviously bulls***. Montpellier eventually paid the transfer fee. It was around €1.5m in the end – that’s gross, which is close to €1m net.”
As mentioned above, Goosen has hit back at any challenge that he did not yearn for a return to rural life by stating that he returned to South Africa and then headed over to Montpellier for “the sun, the space and the nature”.
However much the move may sound to you like football dealings, though, there are big differences. Traditionally in rugby, players sign shorter-term contracts – of two to three years – so that they can play out the duration of the contract, move on to another team and start again. In football, longer contracts add value to transfer fees.
As it stands in England at the moment, due to the current standard Premiership Rugby contracts, clubs cannot begin courting recruits before 1 January – the standard contract ends on 30 June. In France the rules are different and it is actually 12 months before the end of a contract when you can begin negotiating with another party.
While an agreement of fees between clubs for a transfer before a contract runs its course does happen in the UK and Ireland, a lot comes down to club finances. There simply is not a lot of money flying around. While in France, there has been a quick rise in indemnity clauses in young players’ contracts due to the high demand for JIFF players (French-qualified youngsters of which clubs need a minimum number in their squads). So ‘transfer fees’ are included in a number of young French stars’ contracts. It is also known to happen in South Africa, which is player rich but where franchises are cash poor.
We have seen big moves for star players in France before. It was reported that Louis Picamoles joined Montpellier from Northampton for around €1m. This summer, Gaël Fickou went from Toulouse to Stade Français for a reported €800,000 following club negotiations.
Yoann Maestri also joined Stade but his situation was different. He’d signed a pre-contract agreement with La Rochelle and if any side pulls out of such a deal, the transgressor must front up ‘damages’ as specified in the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) contracts. The default fee is normally the yearly wage set forth in the contract, so it is likely Stade simply paid that fee to get Maestri.
Changes are afoot in France. It was announced by LNR that the salary cap – which had been set at €10m – will be shifted upwards to €11.3m and fixed at that cap for the next three seasons.
While two sources interviewed for this article have been preparing for a future in which big transfer fees like Goosen’s would also be included in a team’s final cap, this has not come to pass for the time being. Something that will be included in the cap is pay-off amounts for players being asked to leave a club.
Transfer fees are clearly more common than many realise – ProD2 sides and those facing relegation will hope JIFF talent is still attractive to other teams – and Goosen’s case highlights issues in this area. Yet if you take all of this into account, have Goosen’s manoeuvres actually changed the business of rugby?
As our source says: “If Goosen got away with this deal I think we’d see more (players retiring), but he didn’t. At the end of the day, Montpellier have had to pay a large sum of money.”
This feature first appeared in Rugby world magazine in October.