The selection policy of John Steele, former CEO of the RFU, could be sorely tested by the “exceptional circumstances” stipulation. (Image | The Guardian)

It was in December 2010 that John Steele, then CEO of the Rugby Football Union (RFU), sent a letter to all England players describing a new selection policy. The RFU believed that the best route to World Cup success in 2015 was to develop players within the English club system, using the advantages and release privileges of the Elite Player Squad structure. As such, players who chose to take a contract with an overseas club would only be selected “in exceptional circumstances.”

A year and a half later and “exceptional circumstances” have become somewhat flexible.

At first, players who had signed overseas contracts before the embargo came into force were allowed. Then Ben Morgan was selected from Llanelli with the excuse that he wasn’t on England’s radar when he signed his last contract. Now James Haskell has been chosen for the upcoming South African tour, despite still being under contract to the Highlanders in New Zealand, on the basis that he will be returning to England for next season.

However, the biggest test of the rule is soon to come. Steffon Armitage is playing so well for French club Toulon that he has been voted the player of the season in the Top 14; no small achievement in a league featuring the likes of Dusautoir, Masoe and Harinordoquy. He is a specialist openside flanker, a position that England are short on, and he is in the form of his career. He also has no intention of coming home in the immediate future.

On form alone, he can’t be ignored. So why continue with a policy that will either harm the national team or become a joke through a succession of unexceptional exceptional circumstances?

The answer lies in two other international rugby teams. New Zealand were the first team to tell their players back in the mid 1990s that, if they took the pound, franc or yen, they would be ineligible for selection. The relative financial weakness of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) left them without any defence against the superstar wages available in Europe and Japan apart from forcing players to choose between the pride of an All Black shirt or a lucrative payday.

It wasn’t just about protecting the domestic league, but about protecting the national side. Rugby is a unique sport where a collection of superstars can easily be humbled by a well-drilled and coherent team. A team that has to gather its components from the four corners of the earth is often hampered by a lack of familiarity and preparation time, not to mention the jet-lag.

Incredibly, New Zealand have yet to make an exception to this policy. Even in real exceptional circumstances, such as the fly-half injury crisis in last year’s World Cup that saw them go down to their fourth choice, they didn’t consider looking outside their domestic league.

The fortitude with which they’ve enforced the rule has led to massive benefits. No player doubts that moving from New Zealand means their All Black career is suspended and so the exports are mostly limited to the fringe or players whose international careers are drawing to a close.

However, New Zealand have the advantage of an unparalleled production line of talent. The departures of established, world cup winning internationals Jimmy Cowan and Jerome Kaino are ameliorated by the emergence of Aaron Smith and Brad Shield. There is no such thing as irreplaceable in New Zealand, but it’s not a luxury every rugby nation shares.

Welsh rugby is certainly on a high at the moment, but the nation’s policy of selecting the best, wherever they play, does have its drawbacks. (Image | The Telegraph)

The major current example of this is Wales. Flush from a successful Rugby World Cup and a Grand Slam in the Six Nations, the current Welsh team is the best in the last 20 years. However, success has drawn the attention of the rich French clubs, with Gethin Jenkins, Mike Phillips, James Hook, Lee Byrne, Luke Charteris and Huw Bennett all plying their trade in the Top 14 next season.

Unlike New Zealand, Wales have no official restrictions on selecting overseas players, but that has brought its own problems. A crowded season means that internationals and club matches are clashing more and more often. IRB Regulation 9 states that clubs are required to release players for international duty five days before a test match, but that means that overseas-based players are often withheld from training camps or called back from international duty mid-tournament to play club games.

It’s an obvious disadvantage, but the Welsh Rugby Football Union (WRFU) cannot afford the wages needed to outbid the French clubs and don’t have enough faith to commit to a full ban of overseas-based players. Difficult though it is to lose half the team from a training camp through club commitments, Wales cannot afford to ignore players of Gethin Jenkins’ quality entirely and don’t have confidence that a ban would stop the exodus. They’ve taken the view that it is better to have a less-prepared squad with a full complement of superstars.

However, allowing the players to go could be disastrous in the long-term. As it becomes more acceptable to leave, ever-increasing numbers of players will do so and it could reach a stage where a majority of the Welsh squad are not under the control of the Wales RFU. It could see the national side in the position of having to beg for more time with their players from uncaring French clubs who have no stake in the success of Welsh rugby.

The RFU and England are faced with a difficult choice. Do they follow the insular All Blacks, set a solid line, defy any player to cross it and risk having to ignore top players? Or do they follow the solely-meritocratic Welsh, select anyone who’s good enough and risk losing control over their best players?

Steffon Armitage may end up becoming the test case that defines the way England deals with overseas-based players. However, it’s not a test that will be proved just yet. He has been omitted from England’s squad for the tour of South Africa, despite his outstanding form, because his club Toulon could be competing in the French Top 14 final on the day of the first test.

Exceptional circumstances indeed.

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