I have briefly covered the Steffon Armitage situation months ago in one of my 'Rugby Ramblings' blogs, but after seeing this story today about Steffon Armitage considering exploiting a loophole to get his 'World Cup chance' for 2015, (according to this report in the Rugby Paper Steffon Le Armitage.) I thought i should re-visit the story in a bit more detail
So should Stef be playing for England?
For me, no. He went to France knowing full well the repercussions of moving away from the premiership. The lack of compromise over releasing players to England training has always been cited as one of the main reasons for the non-selection, but in a competitive market for professional sport, another big reason is to keep the best English players in the English league.
Looking deeper into it, the Irish, Scottish and Welsh RABO Pro 12 teams are struggling to keep their top players and the knock on effect to the Pro 12 is beginning to show with more games being played with weakened teams as the top players seem to be kept back for the big European games, this in turn has lead to reduced gate receipts and the Welsh regions and the WRU at loggerheads over the future of the Welsh club game.
So with that in mind, is it the RFU being bloody minded by imposing the non-selection of international players? Of course it isn't. It is doing exactly as was set out to do and safeguarding the domestic game.
And who gets left out to integrate Steffon back into the England fold? Tom Wood? Tom Croft? Tom Johnson? Chris Robshaw? Billy Vunipola? Ben Morgan? Matt Kvesic? James Haskell? Maybe they can be dropped down to the Saxons at the expense of the likes of Dave Ewers, James Gaskell, Sam Dickinson et al. That's just 11 players off the top of my head that have been putting their all into England at various levels over the last few years in Lancasters regime whilst Armitage has been collecting his paycheck from the Top 14! There is a reason that England have the EPS squad, it is to invoke a togetherness and bond from the guys selected who meet several times a season for training, would Stef have the same 'band of brothers' bond should he not be released for these training sessions? If you want to see the close ties developed by the players, look at the Youtube videos (O2 Inside line)
No-one forced Steffon to step away from the England set up, he left purely of his own choice. I can't tell you how much he gets paid annually, but as the French league isn't hamstrung by the salary cap that the Aviva has, I'm imagining that its above what he could have earned had he stayed at London Irish. I don't see how he can complain about his non selection, bearing in mind, he KNEW moving to France would curtail his International appearances. As did Toby Flood, when he recently gave up his chance to play in the world cup to move to France. His drawn out move involved several chats with Stuart Lancaster and some soul searching before he finalised his move.
People can say that England picked the likes of Tom Palmer, James Haskell and Jonny Wilkinson when they were based in France, but i believe that these players were French based BEFORE the selection policy was changed. Palmer and Haskell both returned to England to keep their International ambition alive and Wilkinson retired from International rugby!
The current England squad is looking good. Yes, they lost the recent test series v New Zealand 3-0, but they weren't embarrassed in any test and at times looked exceptional, despite some key absences. Would they have won the test series had Steffon played? No. They wouldn't. As good as he is, and as well has he played recently, he wouldn't drastically change what England already have.
As it stands, it would need several injuries for the 'special measures' call up that has previously been hinted at, and that is fine by me. If its exceptional circumstances and there are no top level EPS candidates left to step in, then yes, call him up, until then, it would set a dangerous precedence to call him up and also would make the RFU look weak to backtrack at this time.
Rightly or wrongly, it looks at the moment like France may be the more likely way for Armitage to appear in the 2015 world cup, the rule has been in place for a few years now and Lancaster doesn't seem likely to shift his stance.