PERTH — South African rugby players, and a few cricketers, are no longer such rarities in Australian sport.
Four rugby players will turn out for Canberra’s Brumbies in this year’s Super 15, while the Western Force will have exiled Cheetahs flyhalf Sias Ebersohn and Durban-born flanker Chris Alcock on their books as well as former Stormers defence coach Dave Wessels.
Ebersohn was once considered a shoo-in for the Cheetahs at flyhalf, but since the emergence of rookie Springbok Johan Goosen in the province he has begun to lose out, which is why he is trying his luck in Australia.
Ebersohn says he is enjoying Perth, a city once dubbed "Bloemfontein by the Sea" by Springbok Schalk Burger.
"It’s a laid-back city, easy to get around in the traffic," Ebersohn says. "But it’s nothing like Bloemfontein. There is a lot going on in Perth and it’s a much bigger city, definitely not like Bloemfontein."
Ebersohn is here on a two-year contract with a point to prove after his star waned at the Cheetahs.
"I’m not looking too far ahead," he says. "My only focus is to win a place in the team and produce the goods for the Force."
South Africans have long made their mark in Australia. Kepler Wessels came here during apartheid so that he could play Test cricket. Tony Greig, who left South Africa eventually to captain England at cricket, was one of the pioneers of Australia’s World Series Cricket, the famous breakaway movement from the game’s establishment.
Clyde Rathbone, a former South African under-21 captain, and former Bok Tiaan Strauss followed them.
The migration was not limited to players. Mickey Arthur, having lost his job as South Africa’s national cricket coach, took the job at Western Australia before being appointed to his current job as coach of Australia. Jake White, who coached the Boks to World Cup victory in 2007, found himself without a job at home, but two years ago was hooked by the Brumbies.
Joining White at the Brumbies in the approaching Super Rugby season are Ruan Smith, a 22-year-old prop from Western Province; Stephan van der Walt, a promising 22-year-old centre from Klerksdorp; 22-year-old Johannesburg-born Mark Swanepoel, who has already played for the national under-21 team; and the prize catch, 20-year-old Etienne Oosthuizen.
Oosthuizen is a towering lock who got out of his contract with the Lions when the Ellis Park team was relegated from the Super 15. At 1.98m and tipping the scales at 120kg, Oosthuizen revealed that he had turned down an offer from the Bulls to sign for the Brumbies as White’s "foreign development player".
After seven weeks in Canberra, Oosthuizen says he does not suffer from homesickness with so many team-mates speaking Afrikaans.
"Not every person gets a chance in his career at a young age to go to another country and play Super Rugby, especially for a coach like Jake White, who did so much for his country," he says.
Oosthuizen says bonding with Van der Walt and Smith has made the transition easier. "They speak Afrikaans, so it feels just like home. During the day we speak English and at night we switch to Afrikaans."
He has been impressed by the professionalism in Australian rugby. "Australia is much more professional in the way they go about their work and coaching," he says, citing things such as recovery after training.
"In South Africa they focus more on strength and bulking up. That is the difference, but the game stays the same."
Within three years Oosthuizen could qualify for Australia and could face a choice between the Boks and the Wallabies. "I don’t mind who I play for, it doesn’t matter," he says.
The South African cricket imports are here mainly to play in the Big Bash, Australia’s local Twenty20 competition. Former Western Province pace bowler Alfonso Thomas made a stunning debut for the Perth Scorchers recently, taking two wickets in his first over to put the Perth side on course for an upset victory over the Brisbane Heat at the Gabba.
Also here is Proteas off-spinner Johan Botha, doing a good job captaining an Adelaide Strikers side who are second on the T20 table. Botha also captains South Australia in the Sheffield Shield.