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England double down on overseas policy amid player exodus to France

By Josh Raisey
Racing 92's Henry Arundell during the Investec Champions Cup match between Bath Rugby and Racing 92 at Recreation Ground on January 14, 2024 in Bath, England. (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

RFU chief Bill Sweeney has said that England have not changed their stance on selecting overseas players, asserting that picking players based in England provides a “performance advantage”.

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The Gallagher Premiership is set to see some of its most established England players make the move to the Top 14 and Pro D2 at the end of the season, but Sweeney recently said that these are players nearing the end of their professional careers that would not have been in contention for England’s hybrid contracts.

They will join the likes of Jack Willis and Henry Arundell, two players who were forced to move to France after their clubs went into liquidation and went head-to-head at the weekend as Toulouse faced Racing 92 in the Investec Champions Cup.

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While they are two players who are in, or approaching, the prime of their careers, Sweeney does not think that that is the case for the bulk of players due to make the journey across the Channel.

“Where we currently stand on the policy of only selecting players based in England stays as it is,” he said at the Impact ’25 launch.

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“If you actually look at the players we’ve got abroad, they probably made a decision in terms of, ‘Where’s my England career currently? Am I in contention for a place in those hybrid contracts? Am I in that core group of England players going forward?’

“If they’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not – and most of them have had conversations with Steve [Borthwick] anyway – it’s partly a lifestyle choice as much as anything else. Some of the players that have gone haven’t gone for more money. They’re coming to the end of their professional career, do they want to spend three or four years in France and have a different experience with family or maybe in some cases, maybe it is financially driven.

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“If you look at the number of players going abroad, it doesn’t really impact our core group of England players quite so much. There’s maybe one or two that you think we’d rather have over here. Joe Marchant is rumoured to be coming back to the Premiership this year, so from our perspective, we’re okay with it.

“We think there’s a performance advantage to having those players based in your own country. New Zealand do it – I know there’s been coverage about whether or not they should do it going forward – France do it, Ireland do it. The obvious outlier is South Africa, they don’t do it and they’ve won the past two World Cups. So the way things currently stand, we’re sticking to that overseas rule.”

Sweeney does not think the delay in agreeing a new Professional Game Partnership (PGP) has played a part in this exodus. The RFU is continuing to negotiate with English rugby’s stakeholders over the structure of rugby in the country, which includes hybrid contracts, but the RFU chief believes that has not had an impact on players’ decisions.

He did provide an update on the PGP, saying: “We’re in good shape. I’m not going to put an exact timeline on it but the current contract expires by the end of June so we’ll be in a position to go forward with where we are pretty soon and we’ll do that jointly with PRL and ourselves. Steve needs to make a decision in terms of who he wants in that hybrid contract squad.”

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The headline English departure to France at the end of the season is former captain Owen Farrell, who will join Racing 92 from Saracens.

Though the fly-half is now 32, he still would have very much been part of Steve Borthwick’s plans had he chosen to stay in England, but other factors have driven him to the Top 14, chiefly his treatment by his own fans at the World Cup last year.

Sweeney addressed the abuse the 112-cap England international has received, saying “we all have an obligation to protect players.”

“There are certain things we do in terms of monitoring social media and monitoring abuse. The situation with Owen started at the warm up matches going into the World Cup. Some of the coverage around the Wales game accelerated and became fuel. We saw what happened in the World Cup itself.

“We all have an obligation to protect the players. They’re very high profile. Sport is immediate in terms of the result and sometimes I think the players can be put under undue amounts of pressure.”

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