Did you see Eddie Jones’ first interview as England rugby coach? I was impressed. If we didn’t already know it, this bloke is a smooth operator, a shrewd maneuverer, or maybe even a silver-tongued fox (pick your favourite expression here). The guy just inspires confidence.
Jones knows how to say all the right things – and he does it with a glint in his eye that says “yeah I know how this media bollocks works”. Whereas some coaches use first press conferences to spout clichés and dress up simple sporting generalities as pearls of wisdom, Jones doesn’t unintentionally patronise his audience. He just says what everyone wants to hear with relaxed professionalism and an easy-going manner. Funny how a light touch is often the sign of a real heavyweight.
Jones answered all the obvious questions with aplomb. How are England going to play? “We’ll have a strong pack but play more expansively when it’s pragmatic to do so”. Good answer. No bullshit. Just common sense. Who is going to be your captain? “I haven’t even thought about that. I’ll sit down with Chris Robshaw, have a chat and we’ll take it from there”. Another good answer. Everyone knows that Robshaw’s toast, but at least Jones is going to tell Robshaw in person first.
The next question, however, is where it got interesting. Was Eddie going to select foreign-based players? “I’ve had a good chat with Ian Ritchie on that area and I understand what the RFU want. Having worked at Saracens I can see things from both sides of the fence. I want players who are committed to playing for England’.
Again this was a good answer. It might not be what everyone wanted to hear but what else was he going to say? Pick a fight with his boss on day one? Not likely. The RFU wouldn’t have appointed him in the first place if they thought he was going to be a pain in the bum. Basically Eddie gave a politician’s answer. He meant “I’m fine with the rule … for now anyway”.
We’ll have to see how this one plays out in the long run though. I have a feeling the debate won’t go away. Unfortunately however, the debate itself has become something of a farce. It’s littered with assumptions on both sides (many of which seem flawed) and laced with propaganda.
I don’t believe for a second that the debate has anything to do with the best interests of English rugby – in other words the England national team’s prospects. It’s all about the self interest of twelve English premiership clubs – and even then, it probably only bothers about eight of them.
In my opinion it’s all about money (when is it ever about anything else?). The RFU implemented this rule to appease the most powerful English clubs, who don’t like the fact that French teams can poach their best players by offering them more money. It’s a brazen attempt to curtail a potential exodus by threatening star players’ international dreams.
I don’t blame either the clubs or the RFU for this – the clubs have to look after themselves and the relationship between the board and the clubs is important – but please let’s not pretend it’s about anything other than power and money. Morality and the interests of the England team don’t come into it.
Having said all that, there’s no simple answer when considering whether England’s foreign-based players should be available for selection – whatever the real motivations for the rule. There are compelling arguments on both sides. If anyone gives you a simple and unequivocal ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I’d immediately treat their views with suspicion. The issue is very complicated. Even the game’s most agile and informed minds disagree.
The arguments on both sides can be summarised thus – please excuse my generalisations (the nuances would take far too long to explain thoroughly). Those who think the rule is sound, and that foreign-based players should not play for England, say that the Premiership needs to be strong for England to be strong. If the best players leave for France then it weakens English rugby. Simple.
If the odd star player emigrates to France, because they love proper croissants and a bigger bank balance, then less people will go to watch Premiership matches, there will be less money within the English game, and therefore less money thrown at player development. The end result? England won’t produce any good young players and we’ll be lucky to even qualify for the 2023 World Cup, let alone get out of the group.
As for players who succumb to the lure of French euros and turn their backs on their country, they’re obviously not committed to playing for England anyway. The bottom line? We don’t want them. That Steffon Armitage is French anyway. The bastard. Or so certain fans say.
The problem with this argument is that it’s too emotional and shows absolutely zero empathy for the players. I’m not sure it’s thought through either – it reads like a propaganda statement co-written by Saracens and Leicester. My club, Worcester Warriors, loses the lion’s shares of its best young players to bigger English clubs. Our solution is to keep producing more and more young players in the hope of retaining some of them. We certainly don’t advocate that ambitious players who want to move on be banned from Sixways or prevented from playing for England.
Think about this for a second. How can clubs with smaller budgets possibly hope to compete with the bigger boys? When it comes to Worcester, we sure as hell can’t compete with Saracens’ bank balance or Leicester’s history when it comes to recruiting top talent. Clubs with smaller budgets have no option but to pump money into their academies. It’s the same with Southampton or Ajax in football.
Consequently, I believe the argument that star players leaving for France will hurt the production line of English talent (and therefore hurt the English national side) is inaccurate scaremongering. The French Top 14 is swimming in money, has the best talent in the world, yet the French national team is rubbish. They’ve been in a long slump. Their young players can’t get a game because guys like Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon are blocking their progress.
There is some evidence that creating wealth within one’s domestic league is a sure-fire way to screw up the national side. Just look at English football’s premier league: loads of money, lots of expensive foreigners, and the worst national team since the 1970s. National teams need strong academies at club level, not necessaries strong teams that win European trophies.
So am I arguing that the no foreign-based players rule should be abolished? Well, erm, not necessarily. The above argument is probably too generalised too. Although the best rugby players in the southern hemisphere are always on the lookout for a lucrative contract in France (or even, ironically, England), and the French and Dutch football teams have had lots of success over the years despite having second-rate domestic leagues, there are obvious exceptions to the rule. Spain’s La Liga was very strong when Spain swept all before them at the World Cup. Meanwhile, the German football team has also broken it’s major tournament hoodoo at a moment when the Bundesliga is thriving.
The truth is that it’s impossible to declare any absolutes on this. One cannot demonstrate one way or another whether a strong domestic league equals a strong national team or not. Evidence can be found to support either theory. Unfortunately the most vital aspect of the Armitage argument ends in a 0-0 stalemate. Consequently, it’s something the jury will have to ignore. It’s best to stick to certainties instead.
This is where the argument becomes simpler. There is one big advantage of allowing English players to play abroad without prejudicing their England chances: playing overseas, and experiencing different rugby cultures, indisputably makes players better. It might also help them to grow as people.
Let’s not forget that experience abroad is encouraged in all other sports – particularly golf, football and cricket. Allowing top players to play overseas should actually help the England team. I can’t think of a single profession in which insularity is encouraged and broadening one’s horizons is discouraged. The stance of English rugby is therefore nuts.
What’s more, it’s unfair to deny rugby players the opportunity to maximise their earnings. It’s a short career; they could get injured at any moment. If I was offered the chance to double my salary by moving to France, I’d probably take it. Rugby players have a family to feed. Taking the euros on offer in France could be portrayed as a sensible and unselfish thing to do: it’s putting one’s family first at the expense of one’s personal international aspirations. It’s therefore unfair to portray our exports as selfish money grabbers. The morality if open to interpretation.
Having said all that, the players do have a compromise available – one high profile English exports tend to ignore but, perhaps tellingly, southern hemisphere players do not. If the likes of Armitage really cared about playing for England, why don’t they sign 3-year contracts with French teams immediately after world cups, but then return to England for the build up to the next tournament? This way they can maximise their earnings for a few years but still fulfil their international aspirations. Surely this is a win-win?
The fact that high profile players have shunned this approach possibly suggests that they’re not as committed to playing for England as they should be. And, as Eddie Jones says, the England team needs players who are committed to the jersey. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. Not even Ian Ritchie, Saracen’s Nigel Wray, or Nick Abendanon’s mum.