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'Let’s be honest, players leaving doesn’t help the league' - Kvesic

By Paul Smith
Matt Kvesic of Worcester Warriors looks on from a scrum during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bristol and Worcester Warriors at Ashton Gate on November 28, 2020 in Bristol, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Having spent 13 years at three English Premiership clubs and a brief stint in Italy with Zebre, former England international Matt Kvesic is well placed to comment on the debate currently raging around England’s eligibility rules.

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And despite wanting Steve Borthwick’s team to perform at the highest possible level, the 31-year-old who won four caps under Stuart Lancaster and Eddie Jones, is not joining the chorus of calls to end regulations restricting their head coach to selecting solely home-based players.

“I have a fairly conflicted view about the regulation that prevents anyone playing their club rugby outside England from being part of the England team,” he admits.

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“There’s a lot of people saying it needs to change now there’s a lower salary cap and more players going to France or Italy, but it’s easy to forget that the regulation has been there a long time and we’ve had some pretty good England sides during that period.

“When a player makes the decision to go abroad it isn’t forever and they have the chance to come back when their contracts end.

“If we keep the eligibility rule the way it is, accessibility to players is much easier for the England coaches and it ensures everyone is available for all the training sessions and games regardless of the international window regulations.

“For instance, when I was at Exeter, Tomas Francis missed some Wales games in the autumn internationals because they were played outside the window, and if England moved to the same type of approach they would potentially face the same problem.

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“It’s not as simple as ‘change the rule and pick everyone’ as there’s a lot of other aspects to consider.

“I also think we have to consider where the Premiership is as a league. Rugby in England is currently in a tough spot and we’ve lost four teams (including Jersey), but it’s not that long ago that quite a lot of people were saying that the Premiership was the best league in the world.

“Let’s be honest, players leaving doesn’t help the league. We all want to see the best English players playing against each other with a sprinkling of international stardust on top.

“If we open the way for our top lads to play in France while still being able to play for England, we have to accept more will go and it will further dilute the quality of the Premiership.”

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Kvesic is quick to acknowledge that those around the England squad who have moved to France – or may do so in the coming months – are in an impossible Catch-22 situation and points out that for most players money is far from being the sole consideration.

“Getting an England cap isn’t about financial value, that isn’t how you measure it,” he says. “But you also have to be realistic and if playing rugby is how you earn your living you have to put that first.

“You really want to play for England and get as many caps as you can since that’s the peak of your career. For anyone to make the decision to go abroad knowing that they’re ruling themselves out of playing for England is therefore very difficult and suggests the benefits available to them are very good.

“I think Henry Arundell made a brilliant decision. He playing at Racing in one of the best teams in arguably the strongest league in the world and is challenging himself and learning under a great coach in a new environment.

Kvesic
Matt Kvesic on the charge for Coventry against Caldy (credit – John Coles)

“Being honest he is probably also earning considerably more money than he would be back in England and enjoying a great lifestyle in Paris in a league that just looks incredible every time you turn on the TV and see everyone bouncing in a packed stadium.

“He might be lucky enough to have another 12 or 15 years playing but it might also end tomorrow. Either way rugby is a short career compared to most so it’s a case of making hay while the sun shines.

“It’s tough in a way since he was initially forced to make this decision and go to France because his English club went bust, but has then made the decision to stay.

“There’s also a lot to weigh up for anyone who’s gone out there and is thinking about coming back to England ahead of the next World Cup.

“Even for big name internationals, the salaries now available from English clubs are a lot lower than what they can earn in France. The match fees for representing England are potential add-ons but they’re not guaranteed as no-one can be certain about getting picked or always being fit.”

Kvesic, who experienced plenty of big European Cup ties with both Gloucester and Exeter, was pleasantly surprised by the English clubs winning 12 of 16 ties in this year’s opening two rounds of action.

He warns, however, that there may be some longer-term negatives that offset the short-term impact brought by the concentration of 13 Premiership squads into ten clubs following the collapse of Wasps, Worcester and London Irish.

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“The English clubs did brilliantly in the first couple of rounds of the Champions Cup, probably better than anyone was expecting,” he says.

“I’ve heard a few people saying that it has helped the ten remaining clubs because they have cherry-picked the better players and put them into their own squads to create a situation where they have more quality across the board.

“Just looking at former Worcester teammates of mine, Bath have had Ollie Lawrence in incredible form outside Finn Russell plus Ted Hill who I’m sure will be pulling up trees for them when he’s fit.

“But in the longer term does this mean there’s less opportunity for the younger guys to stake a claim for a place in the team? The spot that a fringe or young academy player previously filled in some cases is now held by an established Premiership player or even an international that has joined from one of the clubs that have gone under.

“So this is a bit double-edged but you have to say that the stats don’t lie and the English clubs have won a lot of games in the opening two rounds.”

Prior to joining English Championship outfit Coventry, Kvesic enjoyed a 12-game sojourn in the URC with Zebre Palma.

And he believes the arrival in Italy of a number of players whose Premiership careers were abruptly stalled by the collapse of the three financially-stricken clubs will benefit the sport there.

“I was only in Parma for a short period of time but the thing I found most difficult about the Italian system is that there’s no direct connection between Zebre and Treviso and the Italian top ten league,” he says.

“We had a big squad which included some brilliant young players who weren’t quite ready for first team rugby in the URC or Europe but were clearly highly regarded and doing well in the Italy Under-20’s.

“But these guys weren’t getting much game time as they couldn’t go on loan anywhere and the best way for them to improve is to play not just train.

“Treviso have a lot more funding than Zebre, but for both of them adding some experience from the Premiership or elsewhere in the world and especially players who have been in very professional set-ups will really help those young guys to develop.”

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