Hardline approach over club choice gets backing

JOHN STEELE'S first piece of major rugby union reform has been met with widespread acclaim from the corridors of power to the country's leading dugouts.

The Rugby Football Union's new chief executive has written to every England squad member and their agent urging them to play in England in the 2011-15 World Cup cycle.

Though careful to operate within the bounds of EU employment law and offering a lifeline to the England players under 'exceptional circumstances', this is a hardline approach from the former Northampton Saints director of rugby who sees it as his mission to give Martin Johnson and the England team the best possible resources with which to win the World Cup on home soil in 2015.

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It means that squad members like World Cup-winner Jonny Wilkinson, James Haskell and former Leeds lock Tom Palmer, who all play their club rugby in France, will have to find clubs back in the Aviva Premiership if they want their international careers to continue after next year's World Cup in New Zealand.

Steele's decision was backed up yesterday by his colleague at the RFU, director of elite rugby Rob Andrew, who believes the new rules on player eligibility will help England approach the 2015 World Cup with their emerging stars at their best.

Andrew said: "We've obviously got a very detailed relationship with the English clubs which we think helps our relationship with the clubs and the international career of our England players.

"Post-2011 we've got a long lead-up to the 2015 World Cup. We've got a lot of very talented young English players coming through the system and we really feel that we want to keep them playing in England, both for our clubs and also for the England team."

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A similar policy has long since been in place in much of the southern hemisphere, and Andrew added: "Generally speaking, New Zealand and Australia have always said they won't pick players who go and play overseas. If players want to play for their country they have to go back to Australia and New Zealand.

"South Africa have played around with it, sometimes they have had a policy and sometimes they haven't.

"We're not saying players can't go – it's a free world. It's about saying to them 'we think in the long run we can help protect your international career if you stay and play for our English clubs'.

"We have said in exceptional circumstances we will look at it, clearly. We're 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."

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Palmer, who spent nine years playing for Leeds and started every one of England's recent Autumn Internationals, has one year left on his Stade Francais contract after this season and it is understood he would not be penalised for that, unless he signs an extension.

His team-mate at the Parisian club, James Haskell, will be out of contract at the end of the season.

Other England internationals plying their trade in the French Top 14 but currently out of the picture include Paul Sackey and Dean Schofield at Toulon and Magnus Lund at Biarritz, while Danny Cipriani joined Australian side Melbourne Rebels earlier this year.

It is also believed the decision may stop the French clubs operating without a salary cap from raiding the more tightly-monitored English clubs for their best players.

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Leeds Carnegie's international hooker Steve Thompson made his return to the England team while playing in the French Top 14 for Brive, and although he is safe from the current purge now, it is a national stance his club coach Neil Back has welcomed.

"I think it's a fantastic idea," said the Leeds head coach.

"Unfortunately with no salary cap in Europe players are lured to the bigger salaries.

"But for England to be successful in 2015 they need players to be playing alongside each other week in, week out, which will put them in a strong position.

"It's a strong statement from England, though, having said that it's a little disappointing to see the caveat of 'exceptional circumstances' which gives players a loophole. However, it is important to take first steps and this is the first step, and maybe next time they can close that loophole."

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Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill added: "You can understand the Rugby Football Union's point of view – they want their best players playing domestically and with the EPS (Elite Performance Squad) agreement they can look after those players."

But he voiced concerns that a lack of international commitments could actually make players more attractive to overseas clubs, describing it as a 'danger'.

"The northern hemisphere sides buy southern hemisphere players because they're good, generally, and also you've got them all year round and you don't lose them in the international windows.

"That might be an attraction. English guys who are in the twilight of their careers might decide to go there for the financial rewards – and the French clubs might find it more attractive simply because they have them all year round."