PRETORIA, South Africa -- Springbok flyhalf Morne Steyn led an exodus of players out of the three-time Super Rugby champion Bulls and to overseas clubs on Tuesday, the latest group of South African internationals to head to big-paying teams in Europe and Japan.
The Pretoria-based Bulls said the contracts of the eight players, all Springboks, had expired and they would leave before the start of the domestic Currie Cup this weekend. Their departure was confirmed three days after the Bulls lost to Australian team ACT Brumbies in the Super Rugby semifinals, the first time the Bulls have dropped a post-season game in South Africa.
"These players all became Springboks at the Vodacom Blue Bulls, which speaks volumes of how much impact they had in our structures and teams," Bulls chief executive Barend van Graan said.
The Bulls tried to retain a number of the players, but said they couldn't compete with the salaries overseas, which continue to draw away South Africa's top rugby talent.
Steyn, who has played more than 100 Super Rugby games for the Bulls and is the Springboks' second-highest point scorer in tests, will join Stade Francais in France. Six of the eight players leaving Pretoria are still viewed as part of Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer's plans and join a growing list of Springboks overseas.
National try-scoring record holder Bryan Habana joined French club Toulon from Cape Town's Stormers this month, while fellow internationals JP Pietersen and Andries Bekker have signed for Japanese clubs. The 2.08-meter (6-foot-10) Bekker's international career was likely ended by his move to Japanese team Kobelco Steelers.
Pietersen rocketed into the top 10 sports earners in South Africa after signing a $1.1 million per season contract with Japanese club Panasonic Wild Knights, South African newspaper The Sunday Times reported recently. Pietersen's Japan deal was more than five times more than what he makes a year in South Africa off his provincial and national contracts combined.
Along with Steyn, hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle, lock Juandre Kruger, loose forwards Dewald Potgieter and Jacques Potgieter, scrumhalf Jano Vermaak, centre Wynand Olivier and fullback Zane Kirchner also officially left the Bulls.
The Bulls announced later Tuesday they had signed scrumhalf Piet Van Zyl from the Cheetahs to replace Vermaak.
Habana, Pietersen, Steyn, Ralepelle, Kruger, Jacques Potgieter, Vermaak and Kirchner are all current Springboks and the number of internationals now playing overseas and in different seasons will complicate Meyer's plans for the national team, which starts its Rugby Championship campaign on Aug. 17 against Argentina. South Africa flanker Francois Louw and scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar already play in Europe.
No. 2-ranked South Africa won the last of its three southern hemisphere rugby titles in 2009.