Premiership clubs can no longer keep their best players and build a robust wider squad

Lewis Ludlam celebrates after scoring for Saints
The loss of Lewis Ludlam to the Top 14 highlights how difficult it will be for the clubs and RFU to hold the line against picking most overseas-based players for England - Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The threat of a player exodus to France and beyond is not new for the Premiership.

In 2009, following confirmation that Wasps trio James Haskell, Tom Palmer and Riki Flutey would be moving to clubs in France the following season, the Rugby Football Union sent a four-page letter to every member of its elite player squad, making clear that any player moving abroad could put their place in jeopardy if they did not secure satisfactory release periods in the contracts with their new clubs.

There is almost something quaint now about the veiled threat. The players were left in no doubt that if they moved abroad and were vying for a place with an English-based player of the same ability, they would not be selected. It also indicated that England manager at the time Martin Johnson and his coaching staff would not be travelling to watch players in the French league.

James Haskell at Stade Français
When James Haskell moved to France in 2009, the RFU made a veiled threat over exiles' eligibility to play for England - Stuart Morton/Getty Images

Two years later the RFU and Premier Rugby had struck a deal preventing any player based overseas from being picked by the England head coach except in the case of exceptional circumstances.

The toughening of the stance for over a decade proved effective, with the draw of playing for England considerable enough to persuade the overwhelming majority of players that it was in their best interests, both financially and from a rugby perspective, to remain within the English system.

Yet now, the combination of the ravaging impact of the Covid pandemic on the Premiership club finances including a reduction in the salary cap coupled with the soaring commercial success of the French Top 14 league and lucrative options in the professional league in Japan have put an alarming strain on the effectiveness of the overseas policy.

There was a time when players in other national sides used to look on in envy at the financial rewards available to England players, including match fees of over £23,000 per game on top of their club contracts.

But over the last year Steve Borthwick has seen a flow of players, for a variety of reasons, decide that accepting a deal in France is now too good an opportunity to turn down, even if it ends their hopes of pulling on the red rose.

This week we learned that Northampton Saints captain Lewis Ludlam is the latest to join the exodus, set to join Toulon next season despite being a respected and influential member of Borthwick’s squad at the World Cup.

Ludlam’s ex-Saints team-mate David Ribbans is already with Toulon, while former Harlequins centre Joe Marchant has joined Stade Français, Jack Willis is at Toulouse, Jack Nowell at La RochelleSam Simmonds at Montpellier while his brother Joe is at Pau and Henry Arundell moved to Racing 92 after the World Cup.

Sam Simmonds runs with the ball
Sam Simmonds is trying to help Montpellier climb off the bottom of the Top 14 table after the World Cup - ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/AFP via Getty Images

As his move was necessitated by the financial collapse of London Irish, Arundell will be able to play for England this season, whereas Gloucester hooker Jack Singleton has forgone that right by this week signing for Toulon on loan for the remainder of the season.

The introduction of ‘hybrid or central contacts’ as part of the new long-form agreement was initially conceived as a way of giving Borthwick more hands-on control of conditioning and skill development of players in his squad.

But significantly it has now seemingly evolved into the latest incarnation of the 2009 letter, a financial incentive to retain England’s best players in the country.

It is understood that behind the scenes the RFU has already accelerated matters with regard to players who were identified as at high risk of moving overseas and were firmly in Borthwick’s plan ahead of the finalising of the details of the new professional game partnership due to start next summer.

Lawes: ‘The RFU has to step in’

Courtney Lawes, who retired at the end of the World Cup campaign from England duty, explained why retaining the best talent in Premiership required urgent action.

“I think the RFU do have to step in, and the central contract thing probably is a good idea,” said Lawes.

“You need to pay the best players what they are worth to stay here, otherwise places like Japan or France or wherever it is, who have the money… The players’ value is whatever someone is willing to pay for them, so if [clubs in] France will pay X amount for you and nobody in this country will, then it is what it is.

“For players, it is such a finite career, you are playing for such a short amount of time and it can all end at any minute, so you have to make the money you can while you are playing the game. You can’t just stick around through loyalty or anything like that. You have to make your money while you are profitable.”

For Lawes, a move closer to the Ireland system, where the leading players are centrally contracted, with game time closely aligned between club and country, would be a welcome step forward, and help stem the exodus threat.

“I think that as much as you are loyal to your clubs, having to play almost every game for the club, and then going away – when everyone’s got time off – to go and play for your country, it’s not great for you,” he added.

“I think that it puts you at almost a disadvantage compared to the other nations who do only play the games they need to for their clubs. They get the game times that their respective international teams want. And then the rest of the time they’re being well kept and are almost always fit and so they’re in really good nick come competition time.

“Look, players want to be here and play for England. But you’re asking them to, you’re asking them to get paid such a significant amount less than what they’re worth in order to play for England. It is not sensible to stay and do that, rather than to go and earn what you’re worth for the short amount of time you’re worth it.”

And yet the RFU intervention does not address the wider issues of the Premiership directors of rugby who currently find themselves spinning more and more plates in their attempt to retain English talent on the fringes of international selection.

The constraints of the current salary cap, the uncertainty of its direction of travel and absence of detail on exactly how the new RFU contracts will work has made deciding which players are worth it are even more tricky – with the consequence the more players like Ludlam are likely to leave.

‘It’s the most complex part of the job’

“It’s a real headache,” says Phil Dowson, Northampton’s director of rugby, “because it’s a moving target the whole time. The salary cap’s going up and down. We’re not entirely certain what that’s going to be in two, three, four years’ time. So you don’t have a long-term view of what that looks like. You don’t have one on what the England landscape looks like. All that uncertainty makes it really tricky. I’ve found it the most complex part of the job.

“What we can’t have is a situation where in an arms race clubs are going bust. London Irish had a very, very good squad. For that club to no longer be around is very, very sad. If you drive the salary cap up to compete with the French, and you put pressure on these clubs, it becomes very difficult. We’ve got to try to avoid that at all costs.”

The club directors of rugby will attend a meeting with the RFU next month to learn more about the state of play of the new deal, which will come into place for the start of next season. It cannot come soon enough. It all seemed so much more simple in 2009.