Directors of rugby agree on overseas player rule

Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes
Former captains Owen Farrell (left) and Courtney Lawes will both be playing in France next season [Getty Images]

Leading figures in the club game have urged the Rugby Football Union to stick with their policy of not selecting players based overseas.

A number of England stars will play in France next season, making them ineligible for the national side.

But top directors of rugby agree the rule must stay if the Premiership is to catch the Top 14 and become the best in the world.

"It is one of the carrots that keep players in the country," said Northampton's Phil Dowson.

"If all the best players leave because the financial incentives are such - and you can still play for England - then the league looks a very different place I think.

"I’m grateful that if you want to play for England you still have to play in England – that is a rule which certainly I support," added Mark McCall of Saracens.

"It’s a fair decision," said Bath’s Johann van Graan.

"I have a view that people will come and people will go. It is our job to catch the Top 14 and become the best league in the world.

"It is always unfortunate when you lose players, but that’s life, and new players will come and they will become heroes."

'We have to make market forces'

Dowson and Van Graan
Dowson and Van Graan were on the BBC Rugby Union Weekly podcast [BBC]

England greats Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes are among those top names heading across the Channel this summer, with both stepping down from international duty following last year’s Rugby World Cup.

However while the likes of Farrell, Lawes and Manu Tuilagi are in the twilight of their careers, players such as Henry Arundell, Joe Marchant, David Ribbans and Jack Willis have all taken themselves out of England contention after making moves to France in the past year.

Willis, who joined Toulouse after his boyhood club Wasps went bust, excelled for the French giants as they won a record-extending sixth Champions Cup last weekend.

"They are all under their own volition and free will to go and do what they think is right for their career," explained Dowson.

"But at the same time we have to create market forces that keep them here.

"The point isn’t to complain, but the point is to look at what the [French] Top 14 do, what do the Pro D2 do to create a really thriving market that creates funding that creates finance and creates enjoyment, and then do that here.

"And then you can keep players here because you increase the salary cap, because you can afford to do so.

"It upsets me certainly [players leaving], because I am fond of them and they are good players, obviously, which is why they have gone for bigger pay cheques," said Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson.

"But the up side is it encourages you to bring your own through the ranks and make sure your succession plans are in line."

'English rugby is in a better place than people think'

Alex Sanderson and Mark McCall
Sanderson (left) and McCall were among the rugby bosses to speak to the BBC [BBC]

In an exclusive round-table discussion on the Rugby Union Weekly podcast, the bosses of the four teams to make this weekend’s play-offs – Dowson, Van Graan, Sanderson and McCall - believe English rugby is on the way back from the brutal period which resulted in three clubs going out of the business.

"I think the English game is actually in a better place than people give it credit for,” said Van Graan.

"Let’s look at the things we have done very well over the last year. The national team is in a good place, and look at the rugby the 10 clubs have dished up through the season."

"Last year we were right to be a little bit worried," admitted McCall.

"But I think this season has been great. The league has been great and there seems to be a stronger relationship between the RFU and Premiership Rugby.

"There is still some work to do but there seems to be a desire on both fronts to make better decisions in the best interests of rugby in this country, and that gives me a lot of hope."

However the coaches have warned the game still has a way to go to be financially sustainable, and said the onus must be on continuing to deliver a strong product which is well marketed.

"We are still reliant on the generosity of rich philanthropists at the moment," said Sanderson.

"We are all trying to pull together and make sure it is a sustainable business going forward. At the moment it is not – but it has to get there.

"It starts with the product. Jeopardy being perhaps the biggest pull for a new audience, a younger audience.

"We have certainly the product out there and we have to align that with some marketing and making sure we are all on board and we can give better access to players to promote the product."

'Time will tell on 10-team league'

McCall says "time will tell" whether a 10-team league is the best structure going forward, but has hailed the increased availability of international players for club duty given there is no longer a clash between the Premiership and the Six Nations.

Meanwhile Sanderson believes the quality of the league has shot up as a result of the talent being concentrated between 10 clubs rather than 13, pointing to Northampton and Harlequins’ run to the last four of the Champions Cup.

"You can see that in Europe can’t you – we’re competing against the best teams in Europe in semi-finals," he explained.

"That’s not happened for a few years."

'We need to think big'

McCall has urged the game’s administrators to be bold and ambitious, especially when it comes to plans for a revamped Championship.

As it stands the Championship clubs are at loggerheads with the RFU and Premiership over how to structure the second tier and the return of promotion and relegation.

While McCall says English rugby can’t currently sustain a vibrant, fully professional Championship, he hopes that will change down the line.

"We need to think big and we need to have ambition to be able to do it," he said.

"I was in France at a point in time and their second tier wasn’t strong then.

"But someone thought big and I think it’s possible. [The league] seems to have worked well this year but whether it is just sustainable having 10 teams, I’m not sure."

'Our best is yet to come'

Northampton host Saracens this Friday (19:45 BST) before Bath meet Sale at The Rec on Saturday (15:30), with the winners booking a place in the Premiership final on Saturday, 8 June at Twickenham.

"It has been an enjoyable and challenging season, and that is not about to change in the next week," said Dowson. "But we are excited."

"We have absolutely loved the journey and you have to just enjoy the moment now," said Van Graan.

"Our best is yet to come. We are playing against a fantastic opposition in a few days’ time, and may the best man win."

"I hope the best is not yet to come!" joked Sanderson. "I hope they have peaked and they are going down the other side!

"It has been a rollercoaster season – and the best part of the ride is yet to come. I am really loving it being in the mix and being somewhat of a surprise. Now we have a chance."

"We have had a strange old year," said McCall.

"It has been terrible and it has been beautiful, almost on a weekly basis. We were terrible last week, so it’s our time to be beautiful this week hopefully. Let’s see."