Jan 8, 2023
Exeter Chiefs’ dominant victory over Northampton Saints yesterday featured tries from Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds, two players reared in their impressive academy who have gone on to gain recognition for England and the British & Irish Lions. Both featured in England’s patchy autumn campaign and will almost certainly be part of Steve Borthwick’s squad for the Six Nations. Both are off to Montpellier after the 2023 World Cup. That means both will surrender their England careers after the World Cup, as the RFU operates a strict policy; anyone playing abroad is unavailable for selection. With Jack Nowell also mulling over offers from across the channel, is it time the RFU examined its stance?
The RFU implemented the policy after the 2011 World Cup when the financial lures of France’s Top 14 were starting to turn some heads. The policy was aimed at halting a possible exodus, protecting the quality of the Premiership, and allowing greater control over its players, avoiding any issues around releasing players for training camps. Initially, England’s rigid rules were praised; Jonny Wilkinson, England’s most high-profile player playing abroad, retired after the 2011 World Cup, while James Haskell returned home, ensuring his availability for selection.
The French issue started to become an issue in subsequent years, as Steffon Armitage started to carve up trees for Toulon, winning European Player of the Year in 2014. Ahead of the 2015 World Cup, there was a great clamour for his inclusion, seen as a genuine seven who could influence the breakdown, an area where England occasionally suffered, lacking an out-and-out poacher. Australia relaxed their rules ahead of the 2015 World Cup, in what became commonly known as “Giteau’s Law”, enabling then coach Michael Cheika to pick overseas players if they had 60 caps or more, allowing Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell to return to the international fold. There was an element of irony as Giteau ran in the final try as Australia emphatically dumped England out of their own World Cup.
England’s stance at the time was strengthened by the mass exodus experienced by Wales, who saw swathes of key players flooding across the channel, severely weakening their regions. Wales eventually established a 60-cap rule in 2017, while financial intervention from the WRU provided more significant incentives for key players to stay. Welsh rugby is arguably in a more perilous situation; with funding being slashed, plans to reduce squad sizes, and the regions currently placed on a recruitment freeze, many players may join Will Rowlands in heading to France. The WRU faces difficult decisions, lacking the same playing resources available to England. Not picking overseas-based players could greatly diminish the quality of their national side.
There are currently 21 English players plying their trade in the Top 14, nine of them being fully capped internationals. It’s a figure significantly swelled by the financial capitulation of Wasps and Worcester. Jack Willis was one of several players who were forced to head across the channel, as English clubs didn’t have the space in their salary caps to accommodate such a high-profile player. But what happens next year if Willis can’t find an English club and Toulouse table a lucrative offer? English rugby could potenitally miss out on one of the finest flankers they have ever produced if they don’t relax their rules.
England’s problem stems from its inability to compete financially with French rugby; the salary cap for the Top 14 is roughly double that of the Premiership. English clubs cannot compete financially with the packages their French counterparts can offer. Recent events have highlighted the dire financial straits of the Premiership, with clubs riddled with debt and spending almost all of their revenue on players’ wages. English rugby faces the problem of marrying sustainability with competitiveness; cuts are undoubtedly needed, but doing so would damage the English club’s ability to compete in Europe, where a chasm is already starting to develop.
The Top 14 used to be regarded as a semi-retirement home for English players, a pension pot for players nearing the end of their careers. Not now. Sam Simmonds is only 28, while Joe Marchant, who is joining Stade Francais next year, is only 26, heading into the prime of his career. The Top 14 is a strong league, as competitive as it is lucrative. England will reap its benefits next year when Zach Mercer returns, his game elevated to a higher level after two years in Montpellier. But are others likely to return?
Players face an increasingly tricky conundrum, in a short career, of weighing up financial security against the pride of representing their country. England is in the depths of an economic crisis, with rugby inevitably feeling the squeeze. Clubs are facing rising costs; while rugby doesn’t generate the same levels of revenue as football, the clubs rely heavily on the RFU to bail them out. The RFU faces a challenging balancing act of protecting its own game and ensuring its national side can field the best side possible.