RFU will not change policy on picking foreign-based players

·5-min read
Jack Willis England future is in doubt now he plays for Toulouse - Getty Images/Paul Harding
Jack Willis England future is in doubt now he plays for Toulouse - Getty Images/Paul Harding

The Rugby Football Union will not change its policy on picking overseas players, but Premiership clubs will push back on England head coach Steve Borthwick’s desire to keep using the “exceptional circumstances” clause.

Telegraph Sport understands there will be no change on the issue of picking overseas players in the negotiations with Premiership Rugby over the Professional Game Agreement, due to come into force in 2024.

Scroll to continue with content

However, Borthwick wants to keep using the “exceptional circumstances” clause to pick players based abroad and has lobbied the RFU to give him more leeway to do so.

Borthwick used the clause to start Toulouse flanker Jack Willis during the Six Nations. However, the former Leicester head coach was accused by Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter of being a “poacher turned gamekeeper” if he continues to use that clause into next season.

Willis was left without a club after Wasps went into administration last year and joined Toulouse on a short-term deal until the end of the season. While Premiership clubs did not object to Willis’ selection in this Six Nations, they do not want Borthwick to continue exploiting the loophole for fear of creating an exodus of English talent to France.

With the Premiership salary cap coming down, England internationals such as Jack Nowell, Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie, David Ribbans and Joe Marchant have all agreed moves to Top 14 clubs this summer. Anthony Watson is in talks with French and Japanese clubs and could join them.

England's Luke Cowan-Dickie takes on South Africa's Steven Kitshoff during the Autumn International match between England and South Africa at Twickenham - Getty Images/Rob Newell
England's Luke Cowan-Dickie takes on South Africa's Steven Kitshoff during the Autumn International match between England and South Africa at Twickenham - Getty Images/Rob Newell

In a statement, an RFU spokesperson said: “It is important to all rugby stakeholders to have the best English talent playing in England. The current PGA has a provision for exceptional circumstances and these individual cases will be reviewed by the Professional Game Board.”

Part of the problem is that “exceptional circumstances” are not defined in the current PGA, which leaves room for vastly different interpretations.

Willis will be a fascinating test case. The 26-year-old said this week that he has “made up my mind” on his next move with Toulouse desperate to keep him despite receiving an offer from Bristol Bears and attracting interest from Saracens. One Premiership insider believes Willis should be off limits if he has turned down an offer to return to England. “It is a slippery slope,” a source said. “If you make an exception for one player then others will try to exploit that as well.”

However, the RFU are sympathetic to the players’ argument that the retrenchment caused by salary cap coming down from £6.4million to £5 million and the demise of Wasps and Worcester should also be considered “exceptional circumstances”. For example, if a player such as Nowell signs a contract with La Rochelle which is nearly double what Exeter offered, does that meet the threshold of exceptional circumstances?

Having lost three key players to Top 14 clubs, Baxter certainly does subscribe to that theory and insists the RFU need to put their foot down.

“I like Steve and we get on well but that is real poacher turned gamekeeper isn’t it?” Baxter said. “If he was the head coach of Leicester he would be going ‘there is absolutely no way there should be any form of dispensation for any player playing outside the Premiership’.

“I am the director of rugby of a Premiership team so there is absolutely no way an England player should be allowed to be selected from outside England. No way at all.

“If the RFU want to stop players moving, there is a simple way of doing it – you put hand in your pocket and pay. Basically what Steve and the RFU are asking for there is for other people to pay the salary and them to still be available. It is a little bit having your cake and eating it.

“I don’t mind saying this, players will know it themselves, if you want to go and earn your biggest salary that is fine but the lure to stay in England (to play for England) you need to be playing English club rugby.”

Baxter’s views were supported by Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall who believes that selecting players in the Top 14 would be counterproductive for Borthwick. Willis was required to return to play for Toulouse during the Six Nations fallow weeks and was unavailable for selection for the opening match against Scotland because he could not train with the England team.

“If I was the England coach I would want (the current rule) to remain otherwise you get a situation like Jack’s situation where he played for Toulouse on the Sunday night of a fallow week and was unable to train for England during the fallow week,” McCall said. “If you accept that 10 or 15 players can play in France and still play for England on the weekend then I think the coach loses too much control of those players. You don’t have them when you want them.

“Even from a player’s point of view, 12 months ago you were asking me a question after the Six Nations about player welfare. There was a big campaign to make sure we weren’t overplaying the players, which I agreed with, and their minutes were carefully controlled. But if a young English international goes to the Top 14, you lose complete control of that. Those players end up playing 45 times a year rather than 28 times a year. There’s a lot of factors involved in this. We have to contemplate a new solution to this.”

What are your thoughts on the RFU policy that will block Steve Borthwick from picking players based in France? Join the conversation in the comments section below