Lancaster is obliged to negotiate the convoluted Elite Player Squad rules that limit changes and which also demand that Bath’s Anthony Watson was first ‘selected’ for the England Saxons before being immediately promoted to this year’s Six Nations squad. The England coach’s vision for his side is then further clouded by the Rugby Football Union’s policy of not selecting those players who choose to play their club rugby outside the Premiership.
This long-held stance, designed to retain the services and control of the country’s leading players while also preserving the profile of the Premiership, had disappeared from the headlines of late, but it came into sharp focus again last week when Leicester fly-half Toby Flood was omitted from the latest elite squad ahead of a lucrative move to Toulouse in France.
After his pleas to Flood to continue his career in England went unanswered, Lancaster was forced to axe his most experienced, albeit no longer first-choice, playmaker from his plans. While his replacement, Bath’s George Ford, is an exciting alternative and an able rival to Owen Farrell and Freddie Burns in the squad, the void left by Flood’s 60 tests worth of ability and versatility leaves Lancaster’s squad looking a little light in terms of the experience he sees as key to a successful World Cup campaign.
Equally alarming is Flood’s decision to turn his back on international rugby with an England World Cup on the horizon. The 28-year-old may not have been convinced that he remained an integral part of Lancaster’s plans, but it would appear the lure of the England shirt is not perhaps what it once was. His decision to put his club rugby future ahead of his Test career, or cash ahead of country as many see it, should serve as a wake-up call for the RFU.
The fact that English rugby is once again wrestling with this issue just 18 months out from the World Cup only adds to the frustration. It is widely accepted that the forthcoming tournament is crucial to the future development of the game in England so anything that could undermine the country’s effort, on and off the field, would be foolish.
And that’s how former England coach Sir Clive Woodward, a man never reluctant to offer an opinion on the fortunes of his former side and who knows a thing or two about winning the big one, sees it. He believes the RFU are jeopardising their chances at the forthcoming World Cup with such an out-dated policy.
“If I was still head coach of England I would be stamping my feet pretty hard to say why are we doing this?” he said earlier this week, insisting that the professional game has changed things and urging Lancaster to demand the freedom to pick whoever he wants.
The RFU may well believe that they have a duty to preserve the integrity of the English club game and may be trying to lay the foundation for international success by encouraging the best players to remain in the country by whatever means open to them, but by closing the door on those players who choose to venture overseas are they not doing the opposite?
The world’s No.1 side New Zealand may have enjoyed unrivalled success with such a strict selection policy, but they are the exception and their geographical remoteness would make any leeway unworkable. The All Blacks’ nearest rivals, South Africa, were equally tough until market forces demanded they re-consider their approach and now around a dozen of their current squad ply their trade overseas – and yet they are seen by many as favourites for the 2015 title.
Some may say that they are ceding control of those players when they leave the country but the International Rugby Board ensures release windows are strictly enforced. Some of Wales’ leading players have also shown that additional release clauses can be written into contracts that guarantee they are available whenever their country needs them – and France is hardly a long haul destination.
Admittedly, the RFU would not have not the same amount of control or input into the amount of games these players took part in once they crossed the border, but no club is going to jeopardise their investment by sending a major signing into action week after gruelling week.
Woodward and others have pointed out that England would find themselves in a bit of a quandary should more than one of their leading playmakers opt for a move away from the Premiership. England are blessed with an enviable talent pool but it does not run that deep and injuries between now and the start of the Six Nations would surely trigger a re-think.
Perhaps wary of such a scenario, the RFU insist they would consider relaxing their stance if met with ‘exceptional circumstances’. The one beneficiary of that loophole in recent memory was Jonny Wilkinson who remained part of Martin Johnson’s 2011 World Cup plan despite having turned his back on the Premiership in favour of Toulon.
There is also the argument that both player and country would benefit from him furthering his rugby education abroad. There can be no doubt that Wilkinson benefited from his switch to the south of France while Wasps flanker James Haskell insists he does not regret his globe-trotting in New Zealand and Japan that interrupted his international career. He has since returned to the England ranks and reached 50 Test caps although he currently finds himself in the second string Saxons squad.
With the French clubs poised to secure a bumper new TV rights deal that will only bolster their unrivalled buying power yet further and with the end of a World Cup cycle looming, the RFU should prepare themselves for further losses to the continent.
They should scrap the policy altogether, avoid any future embarrassing climb down and give their coach free rein to orchestrate a World Cup win that would do so much more to secure the future of the game in England.
Is Graham right? Do the RFU need to rethink their policy on overseas based players? Comments below…