You do fear for the future of all these English rugby players heading to France – just how on earth are they going to get through the port of Dover?
There have been many unforeseen economic consequences in these post-Brexit years, one of which is the fact that the Premiership, the money-no-object, splash-the-cash pin-up for the global game, where salary caps were extended and marquee players hired to spice up the PR profile, has taken a nose-dive and is now a secondary thought in the minds of many players looking to secure their financial futures. There’s a certain delicious irony that, in the high chapel of conservatism that is Twickenham, it is the free market that has stuffed the free marketeers. From the Harrods of the game to Poundland status, the Premiership is in a rare old slump, hoist by their own petard and the falling value of the league’s currency.
The parlous situation came to mind once again last week, triggered firstly by the announcement of Felix Jones leaving the Springboks to join Steve Borthwick’s England set-up as assistant coach. Fair enough. Decent pedigree. At this rate though there will be scant few players for Jones to help coach.
It was, though, the (red-card curtailed) presence of Zach Mercer on English turf that really threw the issue into sharp relief. The Montpellier No 8 headed off to France in order to seek new adventures after feeling unloved and unappreciated. The sejour was brought on partly by his own existential angst and partly by the tiresome mind-games of Eddie Jones. Mercer’s gamble paid off handsomely. He did managed to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in the Herault.
The only downside to Mercer’s enlightening experience was that he was barred from playing for England. So he decided to cut his losses and signed on for Gloucester from next season. Once more, Mercer is bucking the trend. Headed the other way, (Dover Port notwithstanding), is an entire foreign legion – the Simmonds brothers, Jack Nowell, David Ribbans, Joe Marchant, Luke Cowan-Dickie and, probably, Anthony Watson. Jack Willis was already at Toulouse, an economic migrant after Wasps went bust.
Who would be Steve Borthwick at this point, theoretically denied the services of around half-a-dozen players who would be in his squad thoughts for next season? There will be no sympathy for Borthwick’s dilemma outside English circles as the RFU has long lorded it over the rest of the world when it comes to finances. ‘Build your own stadium,’ was the high-handed reaction to Kiwi request for a greater share of the gate receipts at Twickenham.
The RFU and the Premiership governors have to find a more accommodating way through this malaise. They are not the only business in the land having to make-do-and-mend.
In fact, there is not universal support within the English game for Borthwick’s plea to be allowed to pick who he wants no matter where they might be lacing their boots. Rob Baxter is none too keen on any relaxation in the protectionist regulations that prevent players from being picked from outside the Premiership. And who can blame him? The house that Baxter had so lovingly put together has been blown to buggery by the chill economic winds. The trophy-winning squad has been shredded.
The deterrent factor did once make sense. It no longer does. The RFU and the Premiership governors have to find a more accommodating way through this malaise. They are not the only business in the land having to make-do-and-mend. The alternative is to go bust. And we’ve all had enough of that, thank you very much.
Whatever you decide to call a more flexible approach to elite player deals, a form of central contracting, a partnership forum between various interested parties, club, country, player – there has to be a more mutually beneficial way forward. Cricket has had to do it after it was faced with the financial muscle that is India’s IPL not to mention the other burgeoning T20 franchises round the world.
And for those who moan about this being the thin end of the wedge, that if you let the RFU into the club business it will not be long before they trample all over the rights and feelings of those who have nourished the club game for almost three decades, then take a deep breath. That was a valid concern in days of old. No more. Something has to be done. Complex contractual arrangements are the norm in the real world. It is not beyond the wit of supposedly sensible people – I know, I know, there are a few suspects that counsel for the prosecution could call to the stand who are anything but sensible people – to come up with a package that is for the greater good.
Insist that a player has one extra release date agreed with any Top 14 club? That wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Clubs want happy players. There is always a middle ground to be found.
There has to be more left-field thinking, less self-interest, more selflessness. How to do it? Any which way. Declare a four-year moratorium until the Premiership finances settle? Make the ‘exceptional circumstances’ exemption clause more elastic? Insist that a player has one extra release date agreed with any Top 14 club? That wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Clubs want happy players. There is always a middle ground to be found.
And, Steve, even if all this doesn’t come to pass, don’t despair. South Africa didn’t seem to do too badly at the last World Cup despite the fact that their players were spread across Europe and had a long flight to get back home for any training camp. Argentina, too, England’s first opponent at the World Cup, had a fairly upbeat return when they came to these shores last November. Who did they beat in their first game after little get-together time? Ah, yes, England. Argentina football, with its diaspora of talent, fared okay in Qatar.
Finn Russell, one of the stars of Scotland’s Six Nations, has had his game honed and refined in France these past few years. Scotland, the odd bust-up with Gregor Townsend apart, don’t appear to have suffered.
There has been a lot of (understandable) negativity over the mass exodus of high-end English players to France. It is time to wise up, to stop bleating and to find a solution. There is one to be unearthed. There always is. Even those queues at Dover have eased.
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