The RFU’s controversial policy of only selecting players from within the Premiership to represent the senior national side may well divide opinion. However, with the intended aim to increase the overall ability of the England squad, this policy appears to be paying off based on the number of
England squad players that have featured in the latter stages of this year’s Aviva Premiership play-offs.
Of the 50 players named as part of England’s initial training squad ahead of this year’s forthcoming Rugby World Cup, 30 played across the two semi-finals. Barring any potential injuries or illness, fans can expect to see a further 18 of those same players feature in the Premiership final clash between Bath and Saracens this weekend.
With such a large proportion of the England squad playing for their clubs at this high level, head coach Stuart Lancaster will be encouraged that the competition for players to gain a place amongst his squad is reflected by the sheer number of England hopefuls who have raised their games this season to see their clubs attempt to be named Premiership champions.
Whilst he will also take joy from the invaluable experience that his players will gain from playing in these big game occasions, especially with the World Cup less than four months away, perhaps the biggest satisfaction for Lancaster will be that it helps to justify his decision to only select players from within the Aviva Premiership.
Pressure to look overseas
For recent seasons now Lancaster has resisted continued pressure to select Toulon based no.8, Steffon Armitage, whose imperious form saw him named European player of the year last season. Along with Clermont’s Nick Abendanon, who succeeds Armitage with his award this season, both have seen their omission from the England squad upheld while they continue to play overseas.
Playing in what are considered to be the two strongest sides in Europe this season, the temptation to pick this duo is clear, yet Lancaster remains defiant that doing so will only weaken the England side that he has worked so hard to build.
As reported by the Telegraph, Lancaster said, “Anything we do to change that would undermine that and affect England’s chances of winning in the short term. But more importantly affect England’s chances in the medium and long term."
Suggesting what might happen should the policy be scrapped, he feared that many England players would leave their clubs in search of more lucrative contracts overseas. “We definitely don’t want our best players to go to France. I think it would definitely affect our club teams and the national team."
Although there is an argument to be made that overseas based players such as Armitage and Abendanon have developed into becoming two of the best players available to Lancaster, thus warranting a call-up to the national side based on their talent, the RFU feel differently.
Arguing that by only selecting players based in England it allows them to maintain a better level of access and coaching to their squad, it is a theory not only exclusive to the RFU.
It must be stated that current world champions New Zealand also follow the same practice and have had a lot of recent success in doing so, most notably winning the 2011 World Cup as well as being ranked the no.1 team in World rugby.
Additional support for this notion can be seen in the slight demise of Welsh rugby since the exodus of many of their star players to overseas clubs’ following the breakdown of their national club format.
Whether or not the RFU selection policy is unjust, whilst it remains in place the likes of Armitage and Abedanon know what they need to do if they are serious about playing for England in the future. However with the comptetition for places in England bringing out the best in players such as Saracen’s Billy Vunipola and Bath’s Anthony Watson, who is to say they will be missed anyway.