This week England head coach Stuart Lancaster paid a visit to Toulon in order to assure brothers Steffon and Delon Armitage that the ‘door was not wholly closed’ as regards them playing for England at some point in the future – by which he presumably meant between now and the end of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
In recent times the RFU and the England coaches have been operating a policy where, save in ‘exceptional circumstances’, no England-eligible player who chooses to play his club rugby outside the UK will be picked for the England Saxons or elite squads.
Whether or not you agree with it, there is history and a certain logic behind the policy.
When rugby union went professional in 1995, through a combination of the inevitable chaos surrounding the development and its own lack of vision and ineptitude, the RFU failed to establish a system of central contracts for key English players – which omission effectively passed control of player development to the Premiership clubs. Much of the national administrative wrangling of the past twenty years has been caused by the RFU’s need to negotiate periodic agreements and understandings with the clubs for the release of players to England duty for training camps and/or international campaigns.
The flaw in the logic behind the ‘people playing overseas will not be picked’ policy (designed to keep both current and potential future England players in this country) was its negativity.
The RFU and the Premiership clubs had a joint vested interest in imposing it, i.e. seeking to maintain both their control of England players (in terms of availability) and the quality of the Premiership.
In the event, however, the result has been a drift of power towards the leading clubs in Europe – arguably these days the soon-to-be-defunct Heineken Cup (and now its 2015 successor) offer Northern Hemisphere punters greater rugby excitement and quality than international rugby – and leading England-qualified players being left facing personal dilemmas.
Disregarding the British Lions for a moment, as with any sport, the greatest honour that a rugby player can attain is that of playing for his country, preferably in a Rugby World Cup.
But rugby is a brutal and attritional game – the average career longevity of a Premiership player is less than four seasons – and so, if a French club comes in with a ‘telephone numbers’ contractual offer, it is bound to be tempting despite its implications for the player’s international career.
I am personally against this England policy because I think it is short-sighted. I would drop the principle of it, but maintain a rule that anyone playing their club rugby abroad will only be considered if their club contract contains a clause that they will be released for all England duty periods which means what it says.
There’s certainly no logic in the ‘no overseas players’ rule that I can see when it applies to players playing their club rugby in Europe, e.g. problems with time zones, jet lag and similar – there aren’t any.
The Armitage brothers’ situation has brought focus to the issue. Trinidad-born, their family spent several years living in southern France during their youth, and they are both outstanding players who won England caps whilst playing in the Premiership.
Delon (now 30), a tall, classy, silky-running winger/full back, had some disciplinary issues and felt out of favour with England so, when his original offer to go to Toulon came along, there was an element of ‘what the heck? …’ about it for him and his agent – he could potentially go there for a period, refresh himself, make some money and then come back to the UK.
He was regarded by the England coaching hierarchy as being the wrong shape at a time when there were plenty of England-qualified players who, in their eyes, were the right shape. After two seasons of playing well but being ignored, he had nothing to lose by joining Delon at Toulon.
Arguably, via their exposure to Top 14 French/European Cup rugby and the quality/experience of their stellar Southern Hemisphere mercenary club-mates, both Armitages have become better players than they ever were whilst in England. Recently, Steffon’s outstanding performance at Number 8 in the Heineken Cup Toulon/Leinster quarter-final prompted a media campaign demanding his recall to the England fold.
Stuart Lancaster’s theoretical get-out clause on either or both Armitages is the aforementioned ‘save in exceptional circumstances’ phrase buried in the England ‘no overseas players’ rule.
However, it was never intended to cover ‘well, this guy playing overseas is so good that, for the benefit of our next Rugby World Cup campaign, we need him’.
The problem facing the RFU and Lancaster is, of course, that to make an exception for either Armitage would effectively also be to drive a coach & horses through the policy for the future.
My answer to that is they wouldn’t have had the problem if they’d never had the policy. There’s still time to see sense and change it.