Edwards hits out at England over Bell call-up

Leeds Carnegie’s preparations for the most important phase of the season have been disrupted by a club versus country row.

The Headingley side will contest the first two weeks of their promotion play-off campaign without three of their star players who are on England Under-20s duty.

Chris Walker, as captain, and Dominic Barrow have become mainstays of the Under-20s set-up but it is the national team’s decision to select Tommy Bell for Saturday’s game with France that has angered Leeds.

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Bell’s call-up on Monday night came as a result of the England Under-20s decision to release George Ford and Tom Heathcote to their clubs for this weekend’s LV= Cup semi-finals.

Rugby Football Union regulations state that England have first call on any player outside the Premiership, and while Edwards is not questioning their adherence to those guidelines, he does believe they could have demonstrated equality across the board.

Edwards left his position with the England Under-20s last summer to take charge of his former club, having encountered a similar scenario last year when he adopted a policy that one rule applied to all clubs, not just those in the Premiership.

“I’m frustrated with the attitude of the Under-20s, especially having worked with them last year,” said Edwards.

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“They’ve made a decision to leave George Ford and Tom Heathcote at their clubs, when, by rights, they get first call on them and should be playing them.

“Last year for example, Dan Robson was the scrum-half at Gloucester, a Premiership club, but we kept him with England to play in the Scotland Under-20s game rather than the LV=Cup semi-finals.

“This year, they’ve let George Ford and Tom Heathcote go back to their clubs which has impacted upon us.

“They haven’t quite shown the same attitude.

“Tommy Bell trained with us on Monday morning with the view that he would be playing for us at Cornish Pirates. He’s a key player for us. So it’s hampered us.

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“It’s disappointing that they’ve chosen to make that decision. We’ll deal with the situation, but our Under-20s players by the looks of it, won’t be available for the first two play-off games.”

Edwards hopes to have his full-strength squad mobilised, fit and available by the third week of the play-offs, when Bedford visit Headingley.

Jordan Davies and Will Cliff – who along with Bell are on loan from Sale – are available for the rest of the season while Edwards intends to keep an open dialogue with Leicester over whether Ford will be made available again.

“What we hope is that by the third week we’ll have a full-strength squad – for the first time this season – and that’s when we’ll see the true strength of this squad,” said Edwards, who took his players away for a bonding session last week.

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“As much as we were focused on the regular season, there’s a completely different attitude and focus for the play-offs.

“No stone is being left unturned; all the research, analysis and reviews are being driven by the players.

“The victory at London Welsh in the last regular season game was massive for so many reasons. It gave us that winning momentum going into the play-offs, it showed everybody what we are capable of producing against a top side away from home.

“It demonstrated the type of rugby we can play against a good side in good conditions.

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“It also got us a point going into the play-offs which may prove crucial, but, more importantly, it gave us that foothold and that confidence.”

Leeds begin their Pool B campaign at Cornish Pirates, the side who thrashed them 52-10 in September.

But the fact that Leeds gained revenge with a narrow victory on home soil underpins Edwards’s belief that although they finished sixth in the regular season, Leeds are good enough to secure promotion in the next 10 games.

“Barring Doncaster, we’ve beaten every other side in the league. That’s proved we’re good enough to win the competition,” said Edwards, who is happy to be in a group with Pirates, Bedford and Rotherham rather than Bristol, Doncaster and Nottingham; sides whose fierce committment around the contact area he regards highly.

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“What we haven’t shown is a consistency in our performance, week in, week out.

“We’ve been better against the better sides; when we’ve let ourselves down it’s been against such as Plymouth and Esher.

“We recognise our destiny is under our control and that’s a good situation to be in.

“We’re coming into the play-offs under the radar.”