It's a complex topic, the England selection rules

With mounting financial pressure in the Gallagher Premiership, and the Welsh Rugby Union’s recent yielding to some of the demands of their worried players, attention has inevitably shifted to an 11 year-long debate – should you have to play in England to play for England?

In 2012, the RFU introduced the current England selection rules, which states players must compete in England to be considered for the squad. The move notoriously made European players of the year Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon ineligible for Stuart Lancaster’s selection.

The logic behind this requirement is twofold: national coaches have easier access to their players for monitoring purposes, and the top division of English rugby retains its quality by preventing players from moving to where the grass is financially greener abroad.

Back in 2010, when the announcement was made, then RFU chief executive John Steele said: “Clearly we are not going to cut off our nose to spite our face, but we don’t want an exodus of our best young players going across to play in France because it will cause us difficulties from an England point of view.”

Well from a England point of view if domestic rugby continues to experience such financial distress and players have their hands forced, it seems like the RFU will do just that.

There is already a minor exodus afoot as Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan Dickie, Joe Marchant, and David Ribbans are among those set to join Jack Willis in making an international move to the Top 14.

After 12 years at Exeter, Luke Cowan-Dickie signed for Montpellier (Getty Images)

Willis, who plays for France’s Toulouse but is currently able to represent England under the exceptional circumstance of Wasps’ administration, recently told The Times: “We’re at a point where we can all see how tough it is on Premiership clubs.

“If they’re saying they’ve not got the money when there is money abroad, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to take that opportunity away from those players that have to earn a living.”

The nuance in the England selection rules debate

This is an incredibly nuanced dilemma in which for every pro, there is a con, and vice versa. The Premiership already faces crisis and English rugby has many issues to solve, but the solution is not strong-arming players into staying in the country.

Perhaps we flatter ourselves by thinking the French are chomping at the bit to hoover up English players. But would the movement of some athletes to one of the top leagues in the world be such a dire situation? Panicking about this ignores the positive developmental impact of playing in different environments, and the knock-on positive effects this could have on England’s performance on the international stage.

Zach Mercer has flourished abroad at Montpellier and will now return to Gloucester along with his matured skill. In the interview mentioned above, Willis praises Toulouse as a good place for him to grow as a player. The flanker runs out alongside the likes of Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont to name just two, both one of the best in the world at their respective positions.

Montpellier’s English number 8 Zach Mercer has played well in the Top 14 (Getty Images)

Allowing players to compete in France may well also reduce their market value. When they are no longer a rare commodity, Top 14 clubs might stop paying such a high price. This is coupled with the fact the Top 14 and Pro D2 salary cap will drop to 10 millions euros from 2024 which will wash away some of the French lure.

Lifting the restrictions of the England selection rules could have unforeseen consequences, and the RFU certainly shouldn’t act rashly, but we are hearing and seeing from players what the practical consequences of its continuance in its current form will be. The state of domestic rugby is prompting the flight this criteria was originally designed to prevent.

Players are now increasingly willing to sacrifice their Test careers in favour of better deals overseas.

As for the quality of the Premiership – instead of placing the burden to grow English rugby at the grass roots and highest level on the shoulders of the players, the RFU and top clubs should look internally.

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