England ready to relax overseas player rule amid mounting financial pressures in Premiership
England’s near-blanket ban on selecting overseas-based players is closer than ever to being scrapped.
English rugby chiefs are ready to hold a serious review of the policy for the first time, amid mounting financial pressures in the domestic game.
The RFU will face up to a growing acceptance that the long-held rule of not selecting overseas-based players for England is running out of both steam and clout.
Several Premiership clubs are understood to be on board with amendments to the rule too, amid major financial pressures for England’s top-flight.
England only select foreign-based players in extreme circumstances, with Toulouse’s Jack Willis currently qualifying after losing his job when Wasps folded last year.
The rule has traditionally stopped any exodus of England players, but money troubles off the back of Covid are already seeing increased numbers of Test stars tie up moves overseas.
Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds will join Montpellier, Joe Marchant Stade Francais and David Ribbans Toulon, while Willis may stay at Toulouse beyond the summer. Under current regulations all five Test stars would be unvailable for selection following this autumn’s World Cup.
Premiership clubs no longer have the financial firepower to compete with France’s top teams, with hugely lucrative contracts also on offer in Japan. Domestic teams are battling to retain their top England stars, at times coming under pressure to help extend Red Rose Test careers by keeping players on home soil.
Premiership clubs will baulk at allowing England players to sign for domestic rivals but are more accepting of losing the odd most senior, in-demand star to a move abroad. Any move to allow England players to extend their Test careers while plying their club trade overseas would alleviate this pressure on Premiership teams and their stretched bank balances.
The RFU could impose a minimum cap limit for players to continue their Test careers while playing for foreign clubs. Wales have just been forced to drop their 60-cap minimum requirement to 25 caps, in one of the concessions that averted a Six Nations player strike this week.
England’s concerns over players moving abroad revolve around limited release from club duties, notably in France, that dent Test match preparation time. Willis did not play in England’s Six Nations opener against Scotland after missing several training sessions due to Toulouse commitments.
New England head coach Steve Borthwick wants the foreign-based player rule changed, and will support any RFU alterations.
“What we are faced with here are extreme circumstances,” said Borthwick. “Discussions are ongoing about what the implications are going forward. It’s about players’ livelihoods and careers.
“From my point of view I want to make sure we are able to select the greatest number of players possible – and the best players possible. Those discussions are only at their starting point and clearly my focus is on the Six Nations.
“But do I want to make sure we have an England team where we have the best players available to us? Yes.”
England will take on Wales in Cardiff on Saturday at the end of a tumultuous week across the Severn Bridge, with a player strike threat only averted on Wednesday night.
Hooker Jamie George warned England to beware Wales’ siege-mentality backlash – after living through his own version when Saracens were relegated due to salary cap breaches.
“You kind of love it when things are going well off the field and there’s a lot of noise going on,” said George. “It can really rally you, us against the world, let’s go out and prove some people wrong.
“I am sure those are the messages people like Alun Wyn Jones are giving out.”