Having said my piece yesterday on the issue of whether newly-crowned European Player Of The Year Steffon Armitage should be considered for inclusion in England rugby squad [I’m in favour, in case you missed it], I awoke this morning to find that not only has head coach Stuart Lancaster indicated he remains in favour of the ‘no overseas players’ rule, but several rugby journos have also supported the stance.
Here’s an example – Mick Cleary writing in the DAILY TELEGRAPH
This hasn’t changed my view. There is no easy solution to the irreconcilable ‘national player development’ versus ‘living in the here and now’ issues – that’s a given – but rugby should take a look at the sport that has already tread this path (soccer).
Authorities and pundits naturally fret about how young England rugby players are developed – not least how, indeed, they can gain suitable opportunities for first team game-time in order to amass experience when overseas players abound at the highest club levels.
But let’s take a sideways look at soccer. I don’t suppose you find too many Chelsea or Manchester City fans who are over-bothered about their owners’ millions and the many overseas star players in their squads. Club supporters want success, period – and, nine times out of ten, a prerequisite of success is attracting the very best players.
It’s already happened in rugby’s Premiership. It is not just the successful clubs (e.g. Leicester Tigers, Saracens and Northampton Saints) that boast a healthy number of Southern Hemisphere and Pacific Island players in their squads – even Worcester Warriors, who ironically were relegated this term, retain a significant number of them. These days, it is a fact of life that any club trying to win the Premiership with a roster of exclusively Home Nation players would be up against it – or, just as likely, languishing down in the Championship.
New Zealand is a special case. Rugby really matters to that nation. With a population of only 4.43 million [that compares with 3.1 million for Wales, 4.5 million for Ireland, 5.3 million for Scotland, 53 million for England and 65.7 million for France], if they left things merely to commercial reality they’d not have much home professional club or provincial rugby.
But, their culture being what it is, the chance to become an All Black – a superman in a country of men – is a Kiwi obsession. Thus the New Zealand authorities can impose the ‘only home players’ rule as regards becoming an All Black. What happens in New Zealand these days is that young players of international potential stick around hoping to play for New Zealand in a Rugby World Cup and then look elsewhere for a pension whilst playing fun rugby overseas. However, whereas ten or fifteen years ago players hung around for two or even three RWCs, these days – increasingly – they are departing younger … and then having some of their best playing years abroad and getting paid very well for them too.
The reason is simple – money.
Returning to the issue of England and the Premiership, as the Rolling Stones so aptly once put it – You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
From the England squad point of view, it is impossible to regulate the development of England-qualified young players. Okay – you can ‘bribe’ clubs with incentive payments in the short-term, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really work.
As the new Rugby Championship Cup (the Heineken Cup replacement) and club rugby drives commercial development in the Northern Hemisphere, the International Rugby Board and the national authorities would be playing the part of King Canute in a pantomime if they think they can ‘control’ the drive to attract the best players in the world to the leading clubs.
At the end of the day, whether – once every four year cycle – the national team comes sixth, or indeed second or third, in a Rugby World Cup is of little concern to rugby’s Premiership club owners.