May 4, 2012
England boss Stuart Lancaster has revealed that the selection door remains open - even if you opt to further your career overseas © Getty Images
England coach Stuart Lancaster took another big step out of the shadow cast by the Rugby Football Union's (RFU) well-documented woes earlier this week by confirming what we have suspected for a long time about their much-trumpeted selection policy aimed at preventing a player drain overseas.
When asked if the "exceptional circumstances" that allowed him to pick players plying their trade overseas essentially came down to whether he wanted to pick them, he said: "Pretty much." There was no dancing around the issue, no attempt to justify the RFU's stance or stress the importance of remaining in England - just the refreshing honesty that has become Lancaster's calling card.
In December 2010, the RFU hit the headlines by announcing that they would no longer pick players who chose to further their club careers abroad. We were led to believe that the door would close for good following last year's Rugby World Cup, with players keen on prolonging or starting an international career given a year to get their affairs in order. However, the small print revealed a loophole, or get out of jail card, that allowed England to waive their own policy in "exceptional circumstances."
Clearly, the wealthiest union on the planet was reluctant to call only on the biggest talent pool in the world. We were led to believe that only an injury crisis would prompt such a move, with England determined only to consider those players who were available to them for all training camps and matches. Securing such access was not a problem with the Premiership clubs thanks to their long-term agreement but there was no obligation for overseas clubs to play ball and high-profile squabbles with clubs across the Channel in France brought unwanted grief.
The selection of No.8 Ben Morgan - an imposing feature of Welsh side Scarlets - during the recent Six Nations illustrated that England were prepared to bend the rules to their liking although to be fair to Lancaster, the policy was not introduced on his watch. Morgan's subsequent move to Premiership side Gloucester - which will see him switch to Kingsholm next season - ensured the fuss soon died down but it has now resurfaced as England prepare to name their squad for the forthcoming tour of South Africa.
Lancaster must deal with a host of injuries as he contemplates tackling the Springboks, with key back-row talents Tom Wood and Tom Croft among those set to miss the trip. That significant loss could prompt an international return for the in-form James Haskell and Steffon Armitage - the only problem being that they are both based overseas.
If they were playing on the Premiership stage then there would be little doubt that they would be in line to add to their international honours - even if an expanded squad of 40 players were not undertaking the trip the five-match, three-Test trip. But the fact that Haskell is making a name for himself in New Zealand with Super Rugby side the Highlanders and Armitage is cutting it up for Toulon in France's Top 14 division means that their recall is far from straightforward.
Haskell is all but assured of his place in the next England squad even though his globe-trotting sabbatical - which has also taken in a stint with the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan - is not due to end until August. Crucially, he is set to re-join Premiership side (for now) London Wasps ahead of next season, making his availability for the November internationals and beyond a non-issue.
News of Haskell's likely return emerged earlier this week when the prospect of playing for England was tabled as part of his defence at a disciplinary hearing. He was subsequently hit with a three-week ban for punching the Cheetahs' Justin Downey but crucially he will be available for England's tour. Lancaster would later reveal that he had been in contact with Haskell and his confirmation that the 27-year-old was "coming back into the equation" all but guaranteed that he would be adding to his 42 Test caps in the near future.
In contrast, Armitage's immediate future lies with Toulon, where he is only halfway through a two-year deal. He has returned to top form with the Mediterranean sun on his back and if all goes to plan then he may well find himself contesting the Bouclier de Brennus with his star-studded team-mates at the Stade de France on June 9 - the same day England tackle South Africa in the first Test in Durban.
Given England's relative riches in the back-row, and the likely headache in securing access to Armitage next season, you sense it really would take a medical emergency for him to feature in South Africa. Lancaster insists the revitalised flanker is still on the radar but you suspect his phone will not be ringing in the lead up to the tour squad announcement next Thursday.
The RFU's attempts to retain control of the best players at their disposal is understandable but only a union with more money than sense would deny access to that same talent if they chose to play somewhere other than the Premiership. A stated preference is fine but a coach should not be denied the chance to shake up selection.
There is also the argument that certain players may benefit from a change of scene. Haskell's quality was not in doubt before his sojourn and while some may question his motives, he will surely return a better player for his experiences. Holding your own in Super Rugby is no easy task and he has also won over a New Zealand rugby public that were not impressed by some of England's antics during the Rugby World Cup.
Thankfully, the RFU, England's head coach, the players and the fans are now all on the same page - impress the boss, wherever you are playing your rugby, and there is a chance you will get an international call-up. The only ban is on mixed messages from the RFU.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.