Rugby agent Anthony Johnson talks us through the big life decisions facing ambitious young talents. Part of our 'Too Much, Too Soon' series.

Too Much, Too Soon: The French gateway for South African rugby talent

Before we get to the logistics or even just the opportunity facing young South Africans abroad, agent Anthony Johnson of Le Cap Sports lets us in on something.

“I spoke to one Top 14 club last year, around April, and they were talking about bringing across kids two years before finishing school,” the France-based South African explains. “They thought that coming to do their last two years of school in France would mean them becoming JIFF from the day they leave school.”

Johnson points out the above scheme would not actually work. But it is telling that an elite coach would try to figure out a work-around with JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation).

You may have heard of the JIFF system – the one that drives a hunt for French-qualified youngsters of which clubs need a minimum number in their squads. It has put a premium on talent reared on Gallic lands.

Related: Find out about ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ in our new mag

Well there is also RIF now, too. Réforme des Indemnités de Formation (or Training/Academy Compensation Reform). Ostensibly, amateur and pro clubs that played a role in producing an elite player will be compensated – via FFR – for that job, with a monetary value put on the time spent rearing a player from junior stages to their first pro deal.

Too much too soon

So a crude illustration of this would be a kid playing from eight in a town where a Federale 1 club is king, then moves to another Fed 1 team, later joins a ProD2 academy, then takes a second year with a Top 14 academy and then does a third year before France U20 caps arrive, leading to a handful of T14 games.

Each stage of that journey will be given a points value of X – each Fed 1 year has a points value, so does the time with the U20, then the final academy years too… In the end they come up with a points tally that has a corresponding monetary value.

Say it’s €300,000. For the next ten years whoever has him now has to pay €30,000 a season to have him in their squad, and that money gets divided up for the clubs who developed him. Oh yeah, but according to Johnson if a foreigner comes in, despite not being developed in France, the union will still receive a flat fee – otherwise you could sign a huge contingent of overseas talent as they would be much cheaper to take on.

Which means there can be a few head-spinning details to consider for elite clubs that know they must have younger players on the books and in match-day squads.

But elsewhere in Europe, the idea of signing project players directly from South African schools has also caused consternation. This month Edinburgh announced that centre Jordan Venter would come straight out of the Paul Roos Gymnasium school and hop on a plane to Scotland for next season.

According to Johnson, who is RFU-registered as well as with SARU, we have seen South African unions try to tie kids down to commitments just as early. And with many talented kids coming out of boarding schools, moving abroad is not unfathomable.

However, while he does not see teams or scouts looking at foreign prospects younger than 16, as it’s harder to plot their development, he adds: “The difficulty often in bringing those players over, with the UK in particular, is the academy contracts for these kids out of school are tiny. You get kids getting £500 a month.

“If you have family in the UK it’s easier – you have a house to go back to and so on. But if you’re coming from South Africa and have no one in the UK, £500 is not going to work. Just from a survival point of view. So you’ve just got to be really sure on the kids you bring across.

“French clubs on the other hand give accommodation, salaries, meals; they basically make sure the kid survives. And if it’s a really good kid and a big club, they can come in for €1.5k-, €2k-a-month.”

We can talk about the financial incentives for youngsters and their families in a second, however Johnson also feels we need to be aware of the bottleneck currently happening in South African youth structures.

South African rugby talent

How many will make it?: The Boks U20 last summer (Getty Images)

South Africa has changed their whole set-up. This season sees a salary cap and squad-size cap arrive. That’s 45 senior players, with a squad value limited to 60m Rand (around £3m) – and there is chatter about reducing that to 55m R.

At smaller unions – the second division Currie Cup sides – budgets are slashed to the extent that many are only contracting players for six months of the year. Effectively a lot have become semi-professional. It cannot happen overnight, but there are significantly fewer full-time spots in the country.

Also, there is now no U19 tournament this season and the U21 competition is set to be scrapped next term, meaning that only the U20 competition will remain for unions, with the Varsity Cup left for outsiders. So while there has been a drop-off in numbers already, there are set to be even fewer opportunities for kids to play – and unions have already signed players thinking that U21 competition was going to remain.

Related: University Challenge with the Varsity Cup

Now young, ambitious South African players just outside of a slowly shrinking system must ask themselves: do I look overseas or do I just stop playing?

Furthermore, there is something just as big at play, according to Johnson. He adds: “In South Africa there are a lot of people with fears (for the future of the country) and the reality is that they will see this as a way out for their kid and to possibly get a foreign passport or earn a foreign currency.

“So depending on who you are, it could be a good opportunity for not just an individual but a whole family. These kids aren’t going to earn big money now but if they come over and do really well, they could potentially earn lots of money in years to come.”

While you may disagree with the practice of scouring foreign schools and snatching up teenagers, you must also acknowledge that the choice to move can be a very attractive one to someone in the South African system.

You can read our original special report – Too Much, Too Soon – in the current issue of Rugby World magazine.

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