#360Rugby: Armitage recall unnecessary

Martyn Thomas 11:35 03/02/2015
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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.

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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.

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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