RFU’s bold decision displays ambition

By Dan Grose

Recent months have brought about some rather large changes to English Rugby, both on and off the field. Following some dramatic improvements in performance during the Autumn Internationals, the RFU announced that, following next year’s World Cup, it will no longer be considering overseas players for selection. Their statement of 2nd December appears to signal an intent to end a club versus country row that has simmered since a sizeable foreign exodus two summers ago. With many heading for the salary cap- free realms of France’s Top 14, disputes have sometimes only been narrowly avoided. February’s tug of war with Stade Francais over James Haskell had left a bitter taste in the mouth, and can only have contributed to the announcement. It also serves as a clear intention that the RFU have earmarked a 2015 World Cup triumph as a main priority, and rightly so. With the current crop of youth set to be close to their prime in five years, England stand perhaps their best chance since 2003 to lift the trophy. Granted, 2011 should be a priority and no doubt it is, but any success next year will be a likely be welcome surprise following a tough learning curve under Martin Johnson. With English players based exclusively on home soil come 2015, preparation can be focused and meticulous. Such a show of authority is not often associated with English Rugby, and it will surely draw as much criticism as it will admiration. Chief Executive John Steele described the RFU’s “strong intent” to select from English clubs “where at all possible”, the final sentence adding wriggle room to an otherwise confident statement should any of the leading stars neglect to comply. Following their dominance in the North once again, it is no coincidence that both the New Zealand and Australian Autumn International squads were drawn exclusively from their home country clubs, whilst only two of the South African thirty ply their trade outside that country. These results undoubtedly influenced the RFU’s decision, which will at last put England in line with the Southern Hemisphere nations in terms of structure. England’s top players now face pressure to choose rugby over their wallets. Tom Palmer, James Haskell and Jonny Wilkinson are the only Elite Squad members currently based in France and each have enough time to comply. Both Wilkinson and Haskell are contracted until the end of the season and will be expected to move soon after, whilst Palmer has one year left to run and will not be penalised for seeing it out. Whilst Andrew Sheridan is reportedly flirting with a move abroad perhaps, much like Wilkinson, it is hard to see him pulling on an England shirt in 2015. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwKs34Gl_r8 Biarritz’s Magnus Lund and the enigmatic Danny Cipriani also face decisions over their future, although the apparent disregard shown by Cipriani for his England career should, in any case, rule him out. Indeed it remains to be seen whether current or future Elite Squad players will take such a bold statement seriously. Wasps owner Steve Hayes has already come out in support of the decision, even offering former players a way back to the Premiership. In the end, the players must choose between the high life and the white jersey, and the RFU can only cling to the hope that English pride still matters more.