The RFU policy on selection for the England team is frustrating; if you want to represent your country you must play your club rugby in England. The idea is simple; to make sure the best English players are playing week in week out for our clubs. The problem is, however, that the RFU have said they will select foreign based players in 'exceptional circumstances'. By leaving this door open, it has meant the issue has been debated for over three years, with players and coaches not afraid to let their feelings be known. Steffon Armitage is the current European player of year, he has now won the European cup three times, and is the main reason this debate has endlessly rumbled on, fuelled by the lack of a natural 7 for England over the past few years.
Since Armitage moved to the south of France he has earned big and reportedly takes home €400000 a year. This sort of pay package is roughly double what he could've earnt had he remained in England. And therein lies the problem about him returning to the England squad, many of whom have been offered lucrative deals in France, but chose to remain here and sacrifice potential earnings to be a part of the national set-up. For a lot of them it would be frustrating to know that their monetary sacrifice, in a short and battering career, had been worthless.
In England, clubs operate within a fixed salary cap of £4.7 million compared to £7.3 million in France. This cap has admittedly stalled our clubs performances in Europe and means the best players are inevitably drawn to the top 14 (although weather may also play its part), but our own cap is enlarging year on year as clubs financial positions improve. Therefore, I would imagine in the not so distant future we will have financial parity with our cousins across the channel.
But by selecting a foreign based player now, the writing will be on the wall and England's stars may well decide to take up big contract offers consequently draining our premiership clubs of box office talent.
The case of Wales highlights my point. Wales had always said they were happy to select players based outside of their borders, and this has had a disastrous effect on their regions, to the extent that in 2014 they had to make alterations so that players based in wales were favoured for internationals. Dai Young, the former welsh captain, who coached the Cardiff blues and is currently overseeing a wasps revival, has been in both camps and for him it's clear which approach is best "I've come through that system in Wales, and it certainly wrecked and put regional rugby under a hell of a lot of pressure, You see falling crowds, everybody wants to see their top stars". Young backs "England's stance 100%". Harlequins DoR Conor O'Shea shares Young's view, "I am not saying that Steffon Armitage or Nick Abendanon are not fabulous rugby players but it is up to people now to protect the game rather than listening to some populist stuff."
But what is there to wreck or protect?
England's domestic game is on the up, the powerhouses of the premiership, Northampton and Leicester, are still going strong and are looking to increase capacity, furthermore they have plans underway to build new stands. Saracens' remarkable journey continues and have recently moved into their new purpose built ground while the Wasps' move to Coventry is set to make them the world's richest rugby club. It's hard to think this level of growth would have been possible if our national stars weren't turning up week in week out, drawing in record crowds.
This is all thrown into doubt if our players ply their trade abroad, and if we can't keep this sort of sustainable growth our wage cap might never match France's; consigning English rugby to a doomed lack of competitiveness.
Critics of the selection policy are increasingly vocal and frequently given column inches in popular press. In fact on the websites of the two biggest rugby broadcasters, BT and sky, there are no less than three articles between them arguing the same point for Armitage's inclusion and none arguing against. People arguing on Armitage's behalf are often friends or team mates, or alternatively people concerned that we won't be able to win the world cup without this prodigious talent. If we take a step back surely we can realise that one player will not win the world cup for England. The national team is actually performing at the highest level since we won the RWC in 2003. We are not desperate; in fact at odds of 9/2 England are second favourites to win this year's event.
The consequences should Steffon Armitage be selected could prove catastrophic. Armitage took a gamble when he moved to France, I hope for the clubs and the national team's sake, it doesn't pay off come October.