Austin Healey Column
French leave has its perks
Austin Healey
April 21, 2011
Steffon Armitage could be on his way out of London Irish © Getty Images

Aside from the thrilling draw played out by Leicester and Gloucester, last weekend's big story came at London Irish, with the proposed move of Steffon Armitage to France.

The England flanker has been linked with a move to join Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon and, to be honest, it's a little bizarre. He's got two years to run on his contract and I'm surprised to hear that he's on the move.

While this presents problems for the Exiles, there's also the issue of his England hopes and the Rugby Football Union's (RFU) plan not to select overseas players for international duty.

Armitage is not sure of being in the England squad and has been on the fringes for a while. There are a lot of players coming into that back-row mix and realistically, he's not getting any younger. With the lifestyle and financial perks available to those playing in the south of France, he'd be silly not to give it a go. If he's playing outstanding rugby for Toulon, the England coaches will see that as they will be keeping tabs on Jonny Wilkinson.

I think the RFU's plan works, as long as the national coaches are prepared to see it through. If they keep picking James Haskell and Wilkinson next year, because they are the best players and no-one else is available, then there's no point in saying it in the first place.

It's perhaps more of a statement. From then on, if players are in two minds and it's a 50-50 decision whether you stay or go, it may turn them towards staying in England. English clubs cannot compete with the French sides in terms of wage caps, so they have to use what they have at their disposal. Such a plan is in place in New Zealand and Australia, and until recently Wales.

Playing abroad does offer benefits, both on and off the field. The French league is very physical and very long, your body becomes hardened over time. There is an argument for players to go over there and just try new things, from a development point of view as an individual and also in terms of the style of rugby. It's more flamboyant and it's also a little more physical, particularly at the scrum.

On Tuesday night the ESPN team was at Kingsholm for Gloucester's win over Northampton, and there were a few raised eyebrows at Jim Mallinder's team selection. I wasn't surprised. With their current backlog of games, it was the sensible thing to do and his side nearly pulled off an amazing victory.

If you were in his shoes, you would quickly realise that theirs is not the biggest squad in the world and that the Heineken Cup semi-finals and more than likely the play-offs are around the corner.

If I had the choice, I'd probably go for the Heineken Cup. They haven't won it for a long period of time and they're at home against a French side that is notoriously poor at travelling. They are better off saving their energy, and that's what we're seeing them do.

There's a strong chance that the Saints will be away in the last four of the Premiership. Barring a miracle from the Exiles, who they play this weekend, they are pretty safe in the top four. These next league games are possibly more about conserving energy for the play-offs. It's worth remembering that the semi-finals aren't until the middle of May.

Another game that catches the eye this weekend is Gloucester's trip to face Saracens at Vicarage Road, which could go some way to deciding who has home advantage in the semis.

Gloucester have really turned it around in recent weeks. They didn't look to have a chance of catching the top two, but if they can pick up a result against Sarries and things go their way down the line, they could make it. You wouldn't have expected that, even a week ago, and the three points they picked up in their thrilling draw with Leicester could be vital. With that said, Saracens have been so pragmatic in the last few weeks. They've won eight from eight and I can't see them losing this one.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby

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