England head coach Stuart Lancaster could be without as many as a dozen frontline players as he takes his side to the Millennium Stadium on Friday.
Yet that crippling injury list does not necessarily present the Rugby Football Union (RFU) with the ‘exceptional circumstances’ it needs to pick overseas-based players.
Despite being without a host of stars including, Ben Morgan, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi, England were still able to pick a strong Saxons side that got the better of an experienced Irish Wolfhounds in Cork on Friday night.
Henry Slade was the standout performer in white during an 18-9 victory, and has since been elevated to the senior squad with Kyle Eastmond struggling with a shoulder injury.
It is a deserved promotion following a season that has seen the 21-year-old excel as Exeter have again mixed it with the big boys in the Aviva Premiership.
Slade, a player of rare talent who offers cover at fly-half and in midfield, represents England’s future beyond the autumn’s World Cup and as such it is imperative he is given a taste of the full set-up.
The same can be said of Sam Burgess – brought across from rugby league at great expense and with more than one eye on the international stage – who will train with the senior side this week.
Of course, though, it is not in the back-line that England’s policy of picking overseas based players has been tested.
Morgan’s leg injury has robbed England of their player of the autumn for the Six Nations at the very least, putting the No8’s World Cup involvement in doubt and therefore opening up a place in Lancaster’s squad.
For many the Gloucester man’s misfortune was the perfect opportunity to bring Toulon back-row Steffon Armitage back in from the international wilderness.
Armitage has been the form player in Europe over the last 18 months as Toulon have swept all before them. Offering as he does a world class option at openside flanker as well as the base of the scrum, the case for his inclusion is compelling.
After all Ireland have found a way of fitting in Jonathan Sexton during his time at Racing Metro, while his club-mate Jamie Roberts will line up against England for Wales in Cardiff.
“He is a great player, he’s done really well with Toulon, and I think his main quality is to be very efficient on the rucks and steal a lot of ball,” said Thierry Dusautoir, who briefly looked like becoming Armitage’s international captain when the Englishman was named on a list of possible foreign-born France call-ups last summer.
“He’s an offensive player too, he can carry the ball and he can make a lot of difference at the breakdown. I think he’s an asset for our championship, so maybe he will be one for England too.”
With Lancaster believed to be giving great consideration to including Armitage in his initial squad ahead of the World Cup, it would have been logical to have a look at him this spring.
But unfortunately for the former London Irish back-row, competition in his position is such that the current circumstances cannot be described as ‘exceptional’.
Armitage may be the current European player of the year, but Nick Easter has been the form No8 in the Premiership and Thomas Waldrom, picked for the Saxons in Cork, is the league’s top try scorer.
Moreover, with England captain, Chris Robshaw, and a resurgent James Haskell taking the squad’s openside slots, there simply is no room for Armitage at the current time.
The 29-year-old’s case would certainly not have been aided by his recent off-field controversy, that resulted in him spending time in a police custody and facing a court appearance next week, following an alleged attack in a restaurant.
Lancaster has been emphatic in his stance over Armitage recently, and he clearly feels he needs to take a strong position on the matter.
At present only a handful of English qualified players ply their trade in France, with Steffon and brother Delon Armitage, Clermont full-back Nick Abendanon and Toulouse playmaker Toby Flood the most high-profile.
How can Steffon Armitage not be in England’s Six Nations squad? You want the best players available. He is the best #rugbyunited
— Neil Fissler (@neilfissler) January 24, 2015
Although all have international experience, a look at the current England and Saxons squads lays bare that bar Steffon Armitage, none are banging loudly enough on the door. The current options in the Red Rose back division, even when injuries are factored in, are just too good to warrant a change to the current rules.
The fear from within the RFU has always been that allowing a France-based player such as Armitage back into the fold would encourage more England players to head abroad.
Thus ultimately causing Lancaster problems as players are not guaranteed to be made available for training camps and matches held outside of the official Test window.
The only way to ensure that England build the squad harmony that Lancaster craves, therefore, is by keeping his best players in the Premiership.
And, the RFU’s stance in that regard is clearly working, with Danny Cipriani stating recently that he would only move to France if he felt his international career was over.
Unfortunately for those playing in the Top 14, particularly Armitage, Lancaster has at his disposal a talent pool deep enough to continue to make an example of them. And although that is sad, they were well aware of the rules when they crossed the channel.
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This season’s edition of Europe’s Six Nations Championship will see fifty percent of the coaches come from New Zealand, the home of the world champions.
And when the tournament begins in Cardiff on Friday, it’s possible, if unlikely due to form and fitness, that both the both the Wales fly-half (Gareth Anscombe) and the England hooker (Dylan Hartley) could be native Kiwis.
Meanwhile South Africa-born centre Brad Barritt, although injured right now, is in the England squad while the Rainbow Nation has also yielded a trio of France recruits in Rory Kockott, Scott Spedding and Bernard Le Roux.
For some this represents a “cheapening” of international rugby union.
For others it’s the inevitable consequence of increasing numbers of multi-national families allied to the fact that, in the professional era, players have more incentive, especially in financial terms, to venture abroad should staying at home reduce their Test chances.
Under World Rugby rules, players can compete for a country other than the one they were born through a family connection stretching back to a grandparent hailing from their adopted land or via a three-year residency period.
— RBS 6 Nations (@rbs_6_nations) January 30, 2015
The whole issue was brought into sharp focus ahead of this Six Nations when Scotland coach Vern Cotter, himself a Kiwi, included Hugh Blake in his squad even though the New Zealand-born back-row forward has yet to play for the capital club.
“My message to people would be to ask them to be open-minded,” Blake, who has Scottish grandparents, told Radio Clyde.
“I’m new. I didn’t select the team. I’m just going to be trying my best over the next few days to try to eventually play for Scotland,” added Blake, who played for the New Zealand Colts at the Junior World Cup.
Cotter, previously in charge of French giants Clermont, accepted the question of ‘overseas’ players in Test sides was a thorny topic.
“I know foreign-born players who have been picked, particularly Tony Marsh (a New Zealand-born centre who capped 21 times by France from 2001-2004,” Cotter told AFP at this week’s Six Nations launch in London.
“He was immensely proud to have the cockerel over his heart. Having spent a certain amount of time in France, he felt French.
“It’s a complicated question, a political question.
“In the history of French rugby, there have been foreign-born players and they’ve often brought something with them which has been of benefit to the French game.
“French rugby culture remains very strong and once you’ve spent some time there it becomes imprinted upon you, which is certainly what happened to me.”
In the amateur era, England often annoyed their opponents by regarding anyone studying at Oxford or Cambridge Universities, then hotbeds of sport, as qualified to wear the Red Rose.
This resulted in ‘Tuppy’ Owen-Smith captaining England at rugby while playing cricket for his native South Africa, with Martin Donnelly, one of New Zealand’s greatest batsmen, earning a cap as an England centre.
These days Samoa-born centre Manu Tuilagi, when fit, is a first-choice selection in current England coach Stuart Lancaster’s side.
Meanwhile England’s Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, the former born in New Zealand, the latter in Australia, could also have represented Tonga, the land of their parents, or Wales as that is where the family first lived after arriving in Britain.
Lancaster has set great store by developing an ‘English culture’ within his squad, which he insists is in no way diluted by a player’s origins.
“The likes of Mako and Billy Vunipola have been educated here (in England),” Lancaster told AFP at the Six Nations launch. “Certainly, when I look around my team I see an England team.”
The final weekend of pool play in the European Champions Cup threw up some mouth-watering clashes as international coaches watched on with gritted teeth. As club rugby on the continent winds down for the Six Nations, we take a look at five things we learned from the action…
Ford’s wobbles mean Farrell could be a big miss for England
England coaches Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree may well have finished a bruising weekend watching through their fingers as injuries piled up.
Owen Farrell, Kyle Eastmond and Geoff Parling all limped out of their respective games to give the Red Rose a sizeable headache ahead of their Six Nations opener against Wales on February 6.
It is the loss of Farrell, though, that could prove the most costly. Given he ended up the autumn series on the bench, the Saracens fly-half was not expected to start in Cardiff.
However, his nerveless kicking could well have proved all-important, especially when his rival George Ford continues to crumble when the pressure is on.
Against Glasgow, the Bath playmaker missed a couple of presentable opportunities that kept the game in the balance for longer than it should have been.
His side were able to see out the win and book their place in the quarter-finals, but in the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium with the roof closed and heat turned up would England be able to do the same?
Parisians Racing into contention
Prior to this season Racing Metro had a fairly abject record in Europe’s biggest cup competition.
The Parisians had won just seven of 24 matches in the Heineken Cup, despite their riches and investment in their playing squad.
However, ahead of the campaign they signalled their intention to make a mark and they have delivered on their promise.
Northampton, usually so assured at home, were blitzed by three tries either side of half-time and the manner of Racing’s win will have made the other remaining seven teams take note.
At the heart of their victory was the Wales centre Jamie Roberts, whose ability to break the gain line was pivotal.
Roberts’ performance would have given Lancaster yet more food for thought too, coming as it did against Luther Burrell, who has been pencilled in for a start in Cardiff – albeit at 13 rather than 12.
Hartley still hasn’t learned
Northampton’s cause wasn’t helped against Racing by yet another aberration from their captain Dylan Hartley.
At the of a week that it emerged the hooker is seeing a psychologist in a bid to beat his inner demons, it was made clear they both have a lot of work to do.
HIs latest misdemeanour will not grab headlines, he did gouge or punch anyone, but it should raise eyebrows for its sheer stupidity.
Lying prone on his back and trying to get away from a ruck, the New Zealand-born front-row instead made a tackle, halting Racing progress and earning a deserved yellow card.
It was not only stupid but blatant, and the smirk on his face as he trotted off suggests he may never truly learn his lesson.
Lopez looks the part
No-one knows quite what to expect from France ahead of the Six Nations. The championship’s fixture list is not in their favour this year, with trips to both Ireland and England, while received wisdom has it that the foreign influx into the Top 14 has diluted their talent pool.
Yet, Philippe Saint-Andre has still put together a squad with considerable skill, pace and power and can call upon a fly-half of real quality.
Toulouse’s earlier defeat to Montpellier left Clermont’s clash with Saracens a little flat, but Camille Lopez did everything to give his side victory.
This was not the Clermont playmaker’s most spectacular 62 minutes, but he kicked well and helped ensure that Saracens were kept largely in their own 22’.
If he can exert the same type of control over a France back line that includes the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana and Yoann Huget, then Les Bleus could surprise a few.
Leinster may struggle to shoulder Irish hopes
Irish eyes have not been left smiling by this year’s competition. It is no secret that the provinces were not in favour of the format change, and on paper at least they have adapted poorly to it.
Just 12 months after three Irish sides made the last eight of the final Heineken Cup, only Leinster had made into the quarter-finals this time around. And Matt O’Connor’s side must improve if they are going to get past Bath at the beginning of April.
In Coventry on Saturday it looked as though they were set to canter into the knockout stages as they ruthlessly took advantage of Ashley Johnson’s early yellow card to build a 20-6 half-time lead over Wasps.
However, they failed to score in the second period as they lost control of the scrum and even gave their hosts the chance to steal victory with a late drop-goal that would have knocked them out.
Coming on the back of a couple of average performances earlier in the competition – at home to Wasps and away at Harlequins – this was not necessarily a surprise, and they will need to sharpen up ahead of April.
It seems Richard Wigglesworth’s trip to France almost ended before it had started after his son, Fed, used his passport as a blotting pad.
Luckily for the Saracens scrum-half he was waved through border control in both France and England, and was able to play. Unfortunately he was unable to prevent Clermont winning 18-6 to top Pool 1.