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Dublin: 3°C Sunday 28 February 2021

Do England need to make room for Toulon's phenomenal openside?

Eoghan Hickey hopes that sense will prevail and Steffon Armitage will play at the Rugby World Cup.

AS THE RUGBY World Cup draws nearer, waiting just over this season’s horizon, the divergent possibilities of success or failure are drawing more into focus, as each decision by the various coaches compounds the already great pressure on them.

ToulonÕs  Steffon Armitage Armitage has been in superb form again this season. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Complicating matters for England’s Stuart Lancaster still further is the fact that he doesn’t quite have a free hand, if he allows it to be so. As it stands, the RFU have a self-imposed rule to only select foreign-based players in exceptional circumstances, and the debate is now whether Lancaster should exercise this clause.

So what is Lancaster to do? Should he cast off the shackles and unapologetically go for broke, absorbing the likely flak from some, or should he give it his best shot without ruffling too many feathers?

John Maynard Keynes, the father of macroeconomics, once cautioned that, ”it’s better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally,” as a sort of warning against a herd mentality and deficient leadership. Naturally enough, the English public will be hoping Lancaster avoids this trap and selects his best team, devoid of any restriction.

Yet strangely, in what appears to be a case study into the pitfalls of ‘groupthink’, a media consensus seems to have formed supporting this ban, likely prompted by scaremongering from Premiership Rugby who naturally prioritise club over country.

As for the rule itself, the intention is clear: to prevent a mass exodus of leading English players. The merits are much fuzzier.

New Zealand and Australia have long since been trying to prevent their stars parting their shores but they are very different examples. Australia with such a small player base can’t afford to lose many players, while New Zealand with their exceptionally gifted and plentiful player base just don’t need their jet setters.

Neither Wales nor Ireland imposes any such geographical restrictions, and together they have won the last four Six Nations titles. Both countries have had players move abroad, but overall the effect and numbers have been negligible. Recently that trend has actually gone into reverse.

Jonathan Sexton after the game Sexton will return home to Leinster next season. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Seen in that light, the likelihood of a doomsday exodus for England seems a touch overblown. Of course a few players would leave, but players already do, so the ruling is not exactly airtight, resulting in a three-way loss for the RFU, the players and the public. The only net beneficiary is Premiership Rugby who remain partially inoculated from foreign competition for a small clutch of players.

Whether it is prominent rugby journalists or England players of past and present speaking out in favour of this quasi-ban, the same weak justifications are routinely employed.

Suggestions that the RFU doesn’t have a choice, and that the inclusion of the English expats would upset the environment and team spirit of the national squad are both ridiculous and pathetic.

Representative rugby doesn’t work to the same rules as club rugby. Happiness and contentment aren’t prerequisites and nor should they be, but a real meritocracy for places is. The English public deserves to be represented by the very best on the biggest stage.

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Of course this isn’t always easy and requires some logistical trade-offs but things that matter most should never give way to things that matter least.

This is where the RFU have gone awry, preferring protectionism over meritocracy, contradicting Milton Friedman’s compelling adage that, “equality before freedom gets nothing, but freedom before equality gets most of both.” Clearly the RFU does have a choice. It’s likely they have taken the wrong one.

Of course squad cohesion is important too, but it is an outcome of the squad, not a stable input to the squad. Yes, it’s something to be appreciated, but it’s not something that can be controlled by a lever. In any event, if motivating grown men to pull together and represent their country was so difficult and delicate, then perhaps they are not grown men after all.

Nick Abendanon Nick Abendanon is another English exile in scintillating form. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

More worryingly for this squad cohesion was the audacity and sense of entitlement when a current England player recently chose to publicly try to influence this debate, about who should or shouldn’t be selected, sighting unfairness.

Whether it was intentional of not, it was cringe worthy and it is a bad sign when a player starts lobbying the hierarchy so brazenly. Despite their legitimate personal frustration at perhaps unnecessarily forgoing lucrative foreign contracts just to play for England, it’s just not that relevant. In the real world, regulations, rules and laws can change like the wind so best off taking it on the chin.

England’s initial training squad for the World Cup is soon to be announced, and despite notable performances from Nick Abendanon and Delon Armitage at Clermont Auvergne and Toulon respectively, most of this debate has revolved around Delon’s baby brother Steffon.

With his persistently phenomenal performances long since ending any debate about whether he is good enough, unwarranted assertions about his fitness have strangely endured.

Certainly Steffon isn’t your average back-row forward, but like the physicist Richard Feynman said, “the thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that’s most interesting.”

As a friend and former teammate of Steffon, I hope that sense will prevail, just so long as it doesn’t cause Irish World Cup hopes to derail.

Now based with Massy in France’s Pro D2, Eoghan Hickey has been a professional rugby player for the last decade with some of Europe’s biggest clubs, such as Leinster, Munster, London Irish and Wasps.

Away from training, Eoghan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Statistics, a Masters of Science degree in Climate Change Impacts & Sustainability, and is currently pursuing his Masters Degree in Business Administration at HEC Paris.

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