England's foreign legion warned about international exile
England yesterday hardened their position on selecting overseas-based players by declaring they will only be chosen after the 2011 World Cup in "exceptional circumstances".
The RFU's chief executive John Steele has written to all England internationals and their agents warning of the repercussions should they play their trade outside the Aviva Premiership.
Steele believes that the RFU's wish to only pick from the English league will improve the team's chances of winning the 2015 World Cup on home soil. In the letter, Steele writes: "As things stand we have a number of elite players in various squads and clubs outside England, principally in France, and you may be considering that as your next career move.
"If that is the case then I wanted to let you know that it is our view that we are best served by having our England Elite Player Squad (EPS) and our England Qualified Players (EQPs) all playing in England at English clubs.
"So I would like to confirm that it is our strong intent, from the end of Rugby World Cup 2011 through the RWC 2015 cycle, to select our Elite Player Squads at all levels entirely from players playing at English clubs where at all possible.
"I would stress that this is not a change to our selection policy itself -- players remain entirely free to play outside England should they so wish -- but you need to understand that it is our absolute intention that we only select from overseas clubs in exceptional circumstances.
"It is for you and your agent to decide if you are willing to take that risk. I would further reiterate the crucial point that it is our firm intent to only select players playing at English clubs."
EU employment law has forced Steele to pick his words carefully, but it remains a clear statement of intent from the RFU.
It is hoped the stance will halt the player drain to the French Top 14, where clubs bankrolled by wealthy benefactors are able to offer large contracts.
Only yesterday Sale admitted they face a battle to keep their Lions prop Andrew Sheridan, who is considering the option of joining Toulon next summer.
At 31, Sheridan is unlikely to be required for the 2015 World Cup, but he will still be in action well beyond next year's tournament. England currently have three members of their senior elite squad -- Jonny Wilkinson, James Haskell and Tom Palmer -- playing club rugby in the Top 14.
Palmer has one more year left on his contract with Stade Francais and it is understood he would not be penalised for that -- unless he signed an extension.
But Haskell's agreement with Stade and Wilkinson's deal at Toulon both expire at the end of this season, ensuring they must then return home if they are to avoid harming their England careers.
Haskell has previously been in conflict with Stade over his release and Rob Andrew, the RFU's director of elite rugby, stressed the importance of retaining control of the players.
"We've had some difficulties over contracts with the French clubs," said Andrew.
"It's also more difficult to manage the players under the terms of the EPS agreement when they are in France.
"We think it's in the best interests of the player for his long-term international career and the England team if we go down this road."