Back in 2011 former England and London Irish flanker Steffon Armitage made the difficult decision to leave his home club and country to take up the opportunity of a lifetime with French giants Toulon, but in doing so effectively put himself in exile from national selection. Yet, his failure to gain a single England cap since then is hugely significant to the English game as a whole.
The root of the issue goes way back to the days of John Steele as chief executive of the RFU, when he announced in December 2010 that England would now only pick foreign-based players in ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Steele was pretty blunt in a letter sent out to all EQPs when he said:
“It is for you and your agent to decide if you are willing to take that risk” in terms of moving abroad to play rugby and potentially isolating yourself from the England set-up.
Of course, although then director of elite rugby Rob Andrew painted the inclusion of such a policy as preventing an exodus of players to France “because it will cause us difficulties from an England point of view,” in actuality the interests of the Premiership clubs helped to steer this edict into reality.
Restricted by the salary cap and needing to build squads large enough to compete in both the Premiership and the European Cup, English clubs have in recent years struggled to compete with the financial might of France’s Top 14 teams.
Losing their best English players to French clubs would be a disaster for the Premiership and so the policy is designed to force a player’s hand in terms of their futures. Stay in England, play for England, play for an English club. Move abroad, away from the Premiership, and you’re unlikely to ever play for England again.
Therefore, when the thorny issue of ‘exceptional circumstances’ came up before the World Cup training squad announcement last year, Stuart Lancaster was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Both the media and fans were desperate to see the inclusion of the likes of Steffon Armitage, Nick Abendanon and more, but at the same time Lancaster had to satisfy the demands of the Premiership clubs, the fact that his loyal players had chosen to stay in England rather than head to France in search of financially lucrative contracts, and the self-imposed restrictions the RFU had placed on themselves in order to satisfy the clubs and keep the club and country relationship healthy.
The biggest problem with the policy, however, is the black-and-white nature of it.
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England’s biggest selection dilemma in recent years has been developing a genuine openside to compete with the very best countries in the world. Almost every major nation has a fetcher and turnover maestro at seven, and indeed England had one readily available in triple European Cup winner and European Player of the Year Steffon Armitage.
Ospreys-based youngster Sam Underhill has also been making waves at the Welsh region, but again is ineligible for England because he is based outside of the country, with the threat of Wales poaching the player once he qualifies via World Rugby’s residency rules.
Yet because of the policy, England had to make do with a makeshift openside in Chris Robshaw – a man who has no shortage of determination but ultimately lacks the guile and nous to ever be world-class in that position. He is a quality blindside and his performances under Eddie Jones have so clearly illustrated this.
So why do England and the RFU cause themselves these problems? Both Wales and Australia have learnt that cutting your nose off to spite your face doesn’t really help your national cause.
In Wales, ‘Gatland’s law’ allows for flexibility in wild card players plying their trade outside of the country. In Australia, those players with sixty or more caps and who have played in Australia for seven years or more are eligible to represent their country if based outside its borders.
With the new ‘progressive partnership’ between the RFU and the Premiership clubs finally outlining what ‘exceptional causes’ means, it seems the likes of Armitage could end his career without having played another game for his country.
It’s time the RFU and the clubs looked back at the exceptional circumstances clause and come up with a new policy that allows some flexibility for its most dedicated and loyal players.
In both Wales and Australia the RFU has two models it could use to satisfy all parties and ensure it still has access to all its best players, regardless of where they are playing.
It simply does not need to come down to a false dichotomy of exile or exodus.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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