This week saw the rugby union rumour mill in full swing as it was widely reported that Toulon’s talented flanker Steffon Armitage was in line for a move to Premiership side Bath in order put himself in line for a recall to the England national team.
Due to the Rugby Football Union’s policy of only selecting overseas-based players in ‘exceptional’ circumstances, were Armitage to remain at Toulon, he would likely be overlooked for Stuart Lancaster’s squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, despite consistently impressing for his club side.
While it now seems unlikely Armitage will make the move, with Bath coach Mike Ford confirming negotiations had stalled, it does raise questions about the RFU’s stance on overseas players. If the RFU wish to compete with the best of the Southern Hemisphere sides for rugby union’s biggest prizes then surely they must have the best players available for selection, regardless of where they ply their trade at club level.
Previously when the issue has been raised the RFU have pointed to the difficulties in agreeing player availability with foreign sides. There is some merit to this argument, as the RFU’s agreement with Aviva Premiership sides guarantees players are available for national duty and provides compensation to teams for the loss of crucial squad members.
Currently no such agreement is in place with teams in any of the other major leagues and it seems deeply improbably that such an agreement could ever be made, making it difficult for the RFU to allow the selection of overseas players to the national team.
Many would point to the current war of words between the management teams of Liverpool and the English national football team over the availability of star players Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge – who suffered an injury whilst on duty with England – as indicative of the problems posed by conflicts of interest between a player’s country and his club.
At what point do the interests of one take precedence over the other? In the RFU’s defence, it is easy to see how such a conflict could arise should players from outside the English league be selected for England.
However, to say that the potential for a conflict of interests between club and country is, or should be, a deciding factor would be ignoring the glaring fact that many of the world’s top rugby players do not ply their trade in their country’s domestic league.
In some cases this is due to a low quality competition but largely for English players the lure of overseas rugby is a combination of increased wages and the opportunity to test their skills against the best that world rugby has to offer outside of the international game.
It is not difficult to see the potential benefits of such a move for the English national team. However good the standard of the Aviva Premiership might be, the quality of opposition players will face is not on a par with the opposition they would face week in, week-out in the glamorous setting of the French Top 14 competition. Facing such high quality opponents on a regular basis could serve to develop the skills of English players and improve the overall standard of the national team as well as giving them experience against many of the players they would be facing in international competition.
As well as allowing English players to develop their skills and gain experience in a truly elite level of competition without sacrificing the opportunity to play international rugby, were the RFU to allow the selection of overseas players outside ‘exceptional’ circumstances, it would also negate the potential risk of top players willingly abandoning the national side in pursuit of the exponentially higher wages that French teams are able to pay.
Whilst this might lower standards in domestic rugby, it would prevent the kind of situation that England now find themselves in, where a player with the ability, experience and form of Steffon Armitage – the 2014 ERC European Player of the Year – is unavailable barring some near-impossible turn of events.
The choice is not an easy one for the decision makers at the RFU. On one hand, there is potential for a change in selection criteria to cause all kinds of new problems with player availability; on the other, the potential for English players to develop and then test their skills against the best that rugby union has to offer, as well as bringing the likes of Steffon Armitage back into the international fold, is surely worth the risk.