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Play in England to represent Red Rose: Is RFU overseas rule wrong?

Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | November 23, 2015

As new England ruby union head coach Eddie Jones eases into the job, officially taking up the post on December 1st, there are plenty of pundits who already feel he will have to do it with one arm tied behind his back.

Under the guidance of the Tasmania native, Coral make England their 7/4 favourites to respond to recent disappointment by winning the 2016 Six Nations and his first squad selection shall garner plenty of interest.

“Right regulation”?

The RFU has a strict policy – to be eligible to represent the Red Rose, players must turn out in the Aviva Premiership. If they wish to ply their trade abroad, then they do so on the understanding they incur international exile.

Eddie Jones Press Conference - Twickenham

Having finally appointed a foreign boss, surely this antiquated rule about playing in England in order to turn out for England should also be reassessed? That’s proved too revolutionary for the RFU, but Jones doesn’t have a problem with that.

“I believe the current laws are the right regulation to have,” he said. “I had a good discussion with RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie on that area and I understand.”

Award winners absent

When David Beckham signed for Spanish giants Real Madrid in 2003, the England football team continued to call him up regardless of where he played his club football.

Rugby Union - European Champions Cup Final - Clermont Auvergne v Toulon - Twickenham Stadium

Yet union counterparts the Red Rose have passed over the reigning and previous European Rugby Player of the Year in full back/winger Nick Abendanon and flanker/number eight Steffon Armitage for selection.

At a time where once again the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights have dominated the recent Rugby World Cup, and England flopped spectacularly as host nation, the wisdom of leaving award-winning names out can rightly be called into question.

Aussies overhaul

Similarly rigid rules held sway in Australia until April when the Wallabies realised – having made a change of coach the previous autumn – their selection policy could do with a tweak. Anything to stop bitter rivals and neighbours New Zealand running roughshod over the rugby world.

Under Michael Cheika, the ARU almost immediately had their reward as their new boss, equipped with France-based backs duo Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau, took the Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship this summer.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Semi-Final - Argentina v Australia - Twickenham Stadium

If the Aussies showed willing to change policy and got results thereafter, then England should at least consider following suit.

What is right?

Club versus country debates rage in team sports. What happens if a player is injured on international duty? Are they fit to answer their country’s call in the first place? Which set of medical staff should ascertain that?

Sport should be about broadening horizons, but the RFU put a price on patriotism which could arguably be held as restricting England players’ freedom of movement. Human Rights is one ethical minefield rugby union should steer well clear of.

Whatever personal ambitions those on the Red Rose roster have, they know the rule, be it justified or wrong, is quite simple to follow. To some extent, they choose where they wish to play and must accept whatever consequences, pros or cons that entails.

An increasingly global game

The Super Rugby competition from 2016 admits teams from Argentina and Japan, as well as usual suspects Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, giving an intercontinental feel to it which simply isn’t replicated by European counterparts.

England players, the jet lag of travelling back home apart, would surely find testing themselves against opposition from the other side of world beneficial. Super Rugby now reflects the globalisation of this game, with emerging American and Asian markets further opened up.

Britain Rugby WCup Ireland Argentina

Argentina’s progress since joining the Tri Nations from 2012 onwards has been marked. It’s not two wins from 21 Tests against the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies that provide evidence, but the Pumas bettering the European contingent with a fourth place finish at the Rugby World Cup, eliminating dual Six Nations winners Ireland en route.

Method in madness?

Yet are there practicalities behind the RFU’s no overseas players policy? Travelling to and from the other side of the world would hardly be ideal for any interested party.

Although, this is an accepted part of an elite professional’s career from among Argentine and Australian football counterparts (as well as others), who have just played 2018 World Cup qualifiers and returned to Premier League action.

Jones’ willingness to accept the hand he has been dealt when it comes to selecting his first England squad can be characterised as conservative, old-fashioned or a mistake, but he is doing nothing different to the homegrown coaches who came before him.

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