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Rugby: The Armitage Dilemma - What Should Lancaster Do?

29/04/2015 16:23 BST | Updated 28/06/2015 10:59 BST

As the Rugby World Cup draws nearer, waiting just over this season's horizon, the divergent fortunes of success or failure are drawing more into focus, as each subsequent decision by the various coaches compounds the already great pressure on them.

Complicating matters for Stuart Lancaster still further, he doesn't quite have a free hand, if he allows it to be so. As it stands, the RFU have a self-imposed rule to only select foreign-based players in exceptional circumstances, and the debate is now whether Lancaster should exercise this clause. So what is Lancaster to do? Should he cast off the shackles and unapologetically go for broke, absorbing the likely flak of some, or should he give it his best shot without ruffling too many feathers?

John Maynard Keynes, the father of macroeconomics, once cautioned that, "it's better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally," as a sort of warning against a herd mentality and deficient leadership. Naturally enough, the English public will be hoping Lancaster avoids this trap and selects his best team, devoid of any restriction. Yet strangely, in what seems to be a case study into the pitfalls of 'groupthink', a media consensus seems to have formed supporting this ban, likely prompted by scaremongering from Premiership Rugby who naturally prioritise club over country. As for the rule itself, the intention is clear, to prevent a mass exodus of leading English players, but the merits are much fuzzier.

New Zealand and Australia have long since been trying to prevent their stars parting their shores but they are very different examples. Australia with such a small player base can't afford to lose many players, while New Zealand with their exceptionally gifted and plentiful player base just don't need their jet setters. Neither Wales nor Ireland imposes any such geographical restrictions, and together they have won the last four Six Nations titles. Both countries have had players move abroad, but overall the effect and numbers have been negligible. Recently that trend has actually gone into reverse. Seen in that light, the likelihood of a doomsday exodus for England seems a touch overblown. Of course a few players would leave, but players already do, so the ruling is not exactly airtight, resulting in a three-way loss for the RFU, the players and the public. The only net beneficiary is Premiership Rugby who remain partially inoculated from foreign competition for a small clutch of players.

Whether it is prominent rugby journalists or England players of past and present speaking out in favour of this quasi-ban, the same weak justifications are routinely employed. Suggestions that the RFU doesn't have a choice, and that the inclusion of the English expats would upset the environment and team spirit of the national squad are both ridiculous and pathetic.

Representative rugby doesn't work to the same rules as club rugby. Happiness and contentment aren't prerequisites and nor should they be, but a real meritocracy for places is. The English public deserves to be represented by the very best on the biggest stage. Of course this isn't always easy and requires some logistical trade-offs but things that matter most should never give way to things that matter least. This is where the RFU have gone awry, preferring protectionism over meritocracy, contradicting Milton Friedman's compelling adage that,'equality before freedom gets nothing, but freedom before equality gets most of both.' Clearly the RFU does have a choice. It's likely they have taken the wrong one.

Of course squad cohesion is important too, but it's a dynamically shifting outcome of the squad, not a stable and codified input to the squad. Yes it's something to be appreciated, but it's not something that can be controlled by a lever. In any event, if motivating grown men to pull together and represent their country was so difficult and delicate, then perhaps they are not grown men after all.

More worryingly for this squad cohesion was the audacity and sense of entitlement when a current England player recently chose to publicly try and influence this debate, about who should or shouldn't be selected, sighting unfairness. Whether it was intentional of not, it was cringe worthy and is a bad sign when a player starts lobbying the hierarchy so brazenly. Despite their legitimate personal frustration at perhaps unnecessarily forgoing lucrative foreign contracts just to play for England, it's just not that relevant. In the real world, regulations, rules and laws can change like the wind so best off taking it on the chin.

England's initial training squad for the Rugby World Cup is soon to be announced, and despite notable performances from Nick Abendanon and Delon Armitage at Clermont Auvergne and Toulon respectively, most of this debate has revolved around Delon's baby brother Steffon. With his persistently phenomenal performances long since ending any debate about whether he is good enough, unwarranted assertions about his fit and fitness have strangely endured. Certainly Steffon isn't your average backrow forward, but like the physicist Richard Feynman said, "the thing that doesn't fit is the thing that's most interesting." As a friend and former teammate of Steffon, I hope that sense will prevail, just so long as it doesn't cause Irish World Cup hopes to derail.