Going into last weekends bout of European fixtures, I've always been in the school of thought that better players offer better competition for places. In England, we are incredibly lucky to have the resources we have and the degree of professionalism shown thrown our Rugby system is just as good, if not better, than any other nation. We've just seen a plethora of Welsh and Scottish clubs get dumped out of Europe due to their inability to put down the cash for this gleaming, foreign imports. With that in mind, is there any real reason to be concerned about the growing trend to sign players in their peak from overseas?
It's well documented now, even on the international stage, that England are blessed with an excellent crop of youngsters coming through who are playing more Rugby than ever before. When you look at the likes of Tom Curry, putting in over 30 appearances at national level with a further 60 at domestic, also being considered for the Lions, that's simply not something you would see a decade ago unless it was a generational talent. The same goes for someone like Marcus Smith, who at 22, has over 100 appearances for Harlequins. Simply unheard of. The argument that foreign players are blunting our youth development simply isn't true and although the competition for places is clearly at an all time high, its still in the best interest for clubs to push their youngsters as soon as possible. What is far more worrying, is the fact that New Zealand and Japanese representatives are offering contracts to other nations youngsters to eventually blood them into the national side; you only have to watch the Pacific Rugby Welfare's documentary on this practice to see the moral and political issues with that.
Players At Peak Level
Where there is a key issue, is the preference for cheaper overseas talent over players plying their trade at their peak here in England. In the last few years, we've seen Kruis, Burns, Good and many others relocate overseas due to the Premiership demand being so heavy and perhaps a lack of opportunity within their own side when looking to the future. It's becoming a sickening, football - like trend to dump club heroes out of the turf in favour of the younger, shinier model. From a business point of view, it makes sense, Harlequins letting Mike Brown go to Newcastle is tough, especially with the form he's in, but how much longer does he really have in those legs? However, Wasps refusing to offer Cipriani a new contract and electing to offer a bumper contract to man three years his junior in Lima Sopoaga proved very costly for both sides. This was also the same year that they dumped James Haskell; although he didn't impact the Northampton team much, Wasps nearly fell apart due to injury crisis' in his area. Its more of a joint issue, one being business being business, one being a preference to offer contracts to players with name value from overseas rather than known Premiership talent who have proven themselves within the domestic league.
How Does It Impact England?
If you asked me this a year ago, I'd say it clearly doesn't, but when I look at the talent in the league and reflect on who has been the most consistent and highest performing team at national level, then I'd say its really dogging England's chances moving forwards. South Africa, whether its fair or not, are still the number one ranked team in the world. With over 40 representing different sides in the English league with many more being rumoured to join, are we not simply proving their talent for them? At Wasps, I'd love to see big Esterhuizen line up for us in the centres alongside Fekitoa, but that means Sam Spink and Paolo Odogwu don't get a look in; two players who have England level potential. You just have to look at Sale to see the problem. They are on a hot run of form and have some excellent players in their squad, but other than Tom Curry and an injured Tuilagi, do they have anyone near that England side? At a push you could Say Ben Curry or Luke James, but that's not good enough for a top four side. I'm not saying that a team can't rely on English players to push themselves up the table, you just need to look at Exeter and Bristol for that, but is this just the start and will struggling teams adopt Sale's model in order to make them contenders again? With Quins, Bath and Leicester following suit with their transfer policy, it does look like that.
Where Is The Middle Ground?
As spectators, we want to see the best Rugby players lining up, week in, week out; whether that's domestically or on the international scene. Without a reliance on overseas imports, we wouldn't have such Premiership dynasties as the Tuilagi's, the Piutau's, the Du Preez's and that would be howling shame. Is it right to implement a sterner foreign policy that allows a maximum number of overseas players for each club? It's happened to Football, and that seemed ineffectual anyway. It's really up to us as fans what we want to see. I'm grateful that our game prioritises international commitment above all else; I think that's sorely missed in other ball sports. However, if we grow distant from our nation's representation due to coaching antagonists such as Jones and co, do we start seeing a developing audience at club level... If that becomes the case, more money = more players, more players that will come from overseas. I think where we currently sit, is the closest we will get to that middle ground, it is however in the balance.
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