Englishmen Abroad – A Change of Scene

While we watch young guns such as Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi steal the show for England, it seems only right to refresh rugby fans with news regarding our former internationals now playing overseas. It would be fair to say a few of our forgotten internationals have found form since playing for teams in France, and it seems the mix of sun, sea and fresh air is by far the best antidote.

The first and most obvious player on the agenda is rugby’s golden boy Jonny Wilkinson. He has played his trade on the French coast for a number of years now, and after reading his latest autobiography it seems he owes his career rejuvenation to his new side Toulon. The 2003 World Cup winner has become a crowd favourite at the Stade Mayol since signing for the French side in 2009.

Toulon is where Jonny’s heart is now and with former internationals like Matt Giteau and Joe Van Nierkerk around him, the ex Newcastle man has been showing some great form of late. Just last week he notched up 14 points in a bruising encounter with Montpellier, taking his team to third in the French Top 14.

As we’re on the subject of Toulon, a certain loose forward is playing some of the best rugby of his career but will he ever get another look in for England? Steffon Armitage is the inform English openside at the moment and with a current lack of out and out seven, a future call up for Armitage is surely on the cards?

The fact is we continuously talk of Tom Wood fulfilling the number seven role, but how long can he stay fit for? I cant help but ever so slightly liken Wood to Wasps flanker Tom Rees, he was meant to be a future England captain and superstar openside, but a continuous string of injuries and poor form has knocked the guy to the bottom of the pecking order.

It would have been nice to have seen Wood captaining the team but there’s no taking away that Chris Robshaw is doing a great job for England as skipper, and as a seven. It’s just a shame he doesn’t possess that poaching attribute that players such as Sam Warburton, Thierry Dusautoir and Ross Rennie do. I just think its time we picked in form players, rather than letting a player just fill a gap. I realize Wood is now fit but if he keeps picking up injuries, surely Armitage should be considered?

If you would like some reassurance check out the try saving tackle he made on Stade Francais winger Paul Sackey a few weeks ago, I’m sure you’ll be impressed.

In a similar case to Armitage former Gloucester, England and now Biarritz full back Ian Balshaw is a player who slots comfortably into the full back role for every Biarritz game. He much like Wilkinson has become a favourite down in South West France with his quick feet and eye for the gap. Lets remember it was former England manager Martin Johnson who left Balshaw out of both elite and Saxons squad when he took over in April 2008, and wasn’t he as influential as everyone thought he would be, not particularly.

Overall Balshaw may have had a good career with England but whether you like him or not there’s a strong case to say he could have had a longer one. Don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting a recall for Balshaw as there are many full backs ready to step up, but lets just consider what could have been?

Another individual who I rated as a player was Jamie Noon, he had a promising career with England and provided some much needed bulk in England’s midfield for many years. Since the disaster tour to New Zealand in 2008 the guy fell out of England contention and moved abroad to Brive. Since the change in scene he has established himself as a regular starter alongside forgotten England fly half Shane Geraghty. It’s probably fair to say that Geraghty was never really used to his full capability, and is a player who could have achieved a lot more for his country.

I imagine as the years go on more players will flock to France in search of a bigger paycheck and a St Tropez glow. Just recently we’ve seen another talented player Luke Narraway make his exodus to Perpignan for next season, so what are your thoughts on his move?

Finally, do you believe Wilkinson, Balshaw, and Noon’s careers have been boosted since moving to France, and if Steffon Armitage continues his good run of form, is he inline for an England re-call?

by Dan Newman

23 thoughts on “Englishmen Abroad – A Change of Scene

  1. Wilkinson deserves to wind his career down in the South of France. He gave so much to the England cause and he stepped down at the right time.

    Balshaw meh. Too flaky. Noon just sums up exactly why England were in the doldrums for so long.

    Armitage is the one player we are missing. A quality 7 that should have nailed down the jersey by now but for Johnson’s ineptness and stupid old pals act in picking Moody over him. Hopefully the new coach will have a word with him and get him back on the scene.

    1. Agree with Dan

      Wilko was a legend but hes past it. Didn’t deserve the 10 shirt ahead of Flood in NZ. I’ll always love him but i don’t want him in an England shirt again.

      Balshaw flashes of brilliance among flashes of terribleness not really what you want from a full back.

      Armitage, Robshaw, Morgan on paper seems to have the perfect balance except no great line-out options.

  2. Have to agree with Dan here. Wilkinson is a true legend and has set a precedent for fly halves (particularly English ones). We are now seeing Farrell & Ford play a similar style. Whilst Flood still needs to step up and tackle more.

    Noon for me is in the same mould as Tindall. Bulked up, slow of foot and mind.

    Armitage should definitely be considered, and was surprised to see him omitted from the Saxons team. If Saull and Seymour are being looked at, then then so should Armitage. I think maybe Lancaster would prefer him to be playing over here though?

  3. Its nice to see players doing well, having gone to France. But never again would I want to see Balshaw in an England shirt – flaky just doesn’t do him justice

    i always thought Noon was under-estimated as an England player; it harmed him playing alongside Tindall. Next to a playmaker he would have looked a lot better

    And of course England should look at Armitage. He is playing brilliantly. A back row of Robshaw, Morgan and Armitage looks extremely well-balanced.

    Yes you lose Croft, but just because he finally managed a good game after years of turning up and hanging about on the wing, doesn’t make him the best option at blind-side. Plus Armitage is rather good in the loose as well

    Robshaw’s tackling and incredible stamina would allow Armitage to focus on stealing the ball (much like Lydiate and Warburton for Wales) and Morgan to focus on rampaging around the field

    Croft can go on the bench as an impact sub covering both lock and back row.

    Harsh on Wood but Robshaw is a better blind-side and Armitage a better open-side

    1. I agree Noon would have looked better had he not been paired with Tindall (I swear they’re the exact same player?!). I think if you put him in the 03 England team for Tindall there wouldn’t have been much difference. Tins looked good because he balanced the midfield and fitted the tactics.

      However he is in no way a player that i feel could have been great. He was an average/poor player throughout Englands years of mediocrity.

  4. Forgot to mention – is Magnus Lund still playing for Biarritz? thought he was discarded by england too quickly

  5. I’ve been saying armitage should have been included since before Lancaster picked his six nations squad. As far as an out and out english open side goes, he has no peers at the moment. I’m starting to think the whole idea of either wood or robshaw being captain was a bad. The captain should be nailed on, first selected week in, week out. If croft keeps his form and armitage is selected then where does robshaw fit in? Croft offers so much around the field and especially in the line out and morgan has made the eight shirt his own. I think hartley would have been a good choice if not for the most recent biting incident. However, it will be interesting to know what the report on his punishment says. An eight week ban for something that no one saw is pretty shady. If ferris was trying to “fish hook” Hartley then I think he bloody weel deserved to have his finger nibbled. I’m not saying biting is okay, because its not. But biting with a gum shield in is pretty harmless, so I can’t understand why Hartley would even attempt to get under Ferris’s skin that way. Ferris was shown up for his lack of pace against england and his frustration showed. Wouldn’t be surprised if he is just as guilty as hartley.

    1. As a response to both you and Paolo, why not stick Croft in the second row from the start? Alongside someone like Botha or Lawes, he could run the line out (he has the experience), and still play his usual game without the pressure of trying to get too involved in rucks and mauls. Robshaw, Armitage and Morgan is indeed an exciting prospect.

      1. Croft is very loose for a blindside he would be far too loose for a second row. His best skills are broken play, support and secondary cover tackles. None of which are the “bread and butter” of a 2nd row. He can only play second row as a last resort (a good last resort its true but still).

        1. That is of course the problem of playing a proper open-side with Croft

          As Nick says, Croft plays extremely loose and if you pick him, your other flanker needs to really put the hard work in at the rucks and the tackles, so you really need an extra blind-side or a kind of 6.5. This is what Robshaw does so well

          If Croft plays with a scavenging 7 like Armitage, the hard work will not be done to the extent that it needs to be.

          Croft really is a bit of luxury and you have to weigh up the bonuses of playing him vs the bonuses of a proper 7

          In my view, Croft’s one or two great games for England amongst all his caps does not out-weigh the neccesity of a decent open-side.

          Yes he’s good in the line-out, but that really should be what our locks are for

          Robshaw, Morgan and Armitage bears quite a similarity to the Welsh back row

          1. I don’t no if i agree that you couldn’t play a proper 7 with Croft. As long as that 7 also had some ball carrying/big hitting plays to his skill set. You could play him with Pocock for example because as well as being the Jackal he tackles and carries like a six. Dusantoir would also pair Croft well because of his physical edge… So that’s our back row sorted just find a Pocock or a Dusantoir simples!

            But seriously i think on paper Robshaw, Morgan and Armitage has the best balance.

  6. Now Saull and Seymour are both likely to be injured for the summer tours, surely England must pick Armitage? With the way the Super 15 is being played at the moment we will need an openside like him to slow down some ball, other why’s we could have some thrashings on our hands.

  7. I think the back row would excel as Croft, Armitage and Morgan. Morgan and Armitage are there to get the go forward yards, Armitage is a carrying monster in the top 14 at the moment. Plus, if he gets over the ball, Toulon are pretty much garunteed a turn over. We need this guy in now. We have the grunt and skill at the breakdown from Morgan and Armitage, plus the pace and running of Croft. Can’t be much more balanced. Croft, Armitage and Morgan v Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau would be excellent to watch.

    1. As per my last comment though, you’d have no-one in that trio doing the hard work

      Take a look at Robshaw’s tackle count compared to Morgan and Croft. I believe Robshaw was third for the tournament after Dusautoir and Rennie – Croft doesn’t make it into the top ten. It is the hard graft Robshaw puts in that has freed up Croft to play like he did for the last couple of games

      If you played Armitage would he make those tackles – and if he had to make those tackles, would he be anywhere near as effective in the loose and at the breakdown?

      If you look at the player of the tounament, Lydiate, you never saw him on the wing or making flashy runs. His work as a blind-side flanker allowed the rest of the team the freedom to play as they did. Richard Hill was much the same when he was playing

      Robshaw, Armitage and Morgan would be as close to Hill, Back and Dallaglio as we’ve been for years

      1. There it is! No debate about any back row could ever be complete without mentioning Richard Hill and “unseen work”. You even mentioned the holy trinity as a unit.

        1. Nick – the thing about cliches is that have an element of truth at their heart. That is why they turn into cliches

          Hill was the best blindside I’ve seen in my lifetime and the ‘holy trinity’ the best balanced back row that I’ve watched for England. Comparisons are inevitable

  8. I never understood why Balshaw didn’t get more time with the England Squad, sure he had the odd lapse of concentration here and there, but can we really say the current England back 3 have been playing perfectly?

    I thought Noon was ok as a player, but he will always be remembered as one of the players from Englands “wilderness years” shortly after the world cup.

    Unfortunately with Armitage I fear he’s just another one of those consistantly overrated players (Much like Courtney “i’ll stand waiting for the ball” Lawes) both of them recieve so much praise from the media but neither of them are essential at the moment for any international set up. Stick with Lancs current selection and work with it, consistancy in selection is key here! (plus why bring someone with a patchy disaplinary record back into an England camp that has just relearnt the values of playing with pride in the shirt)

    Finally whatever happened to Paul Sackey, he was another one that just dropped off the England radar. (maybe not so much with Lund and Geraghty but they’re untimely exits are duly noted too)

    1. Liam – if you look at the top tires from the french league on rugby dump, you’ll see Sackey scoring an absolute beauty

      On the Armitages, I think you may have the wrong one. Steffon is the flanker and as far as I’m aware has a decent disciplinary record, unlike his bother Delon

    2. Liam on the Balshaw thing. People dislike him not because he wasn’t perfect as you say. But because he used to have massive memorable howlers in which we would concede trys. Check the 2008 6N in which he was a consistent sham. Ben Foden’s howlers against Italy were way more down to bad luck.

      1. I vividly remember one Balshaw howler when he jumped for a high ball – and missed it by a good couple of metres

        Time may have exaggerated the distance, but it was just embarrassing

  9. Maybe I’m slightly biased in Balshaws favour because I’m from Leeds so realistically Ian is one of the only players to ever actually bring Leeds any glory (Who remembers the Powergen cup win vs Bath?) Leeds has had its fair share of decent players come through the ranks, but its a shame non of them stay! Anyway yes, I can agree he might not of had some flashes of good form with England over the years, but Frances does seem to have boosted him a bit.

    Paul Sackey has scored some beauts for Toulon in the past, are you refering specifically to his impossible struggle through more than a few tackles to touch down last season? It might have been a fluke, but it looked quality!

    1. Balshaw seemed to be a confidence player, not a great thing in a pressure position when your confidence is low. Shame we didn’t get the best out of him as he really could scorch the turf.

      Be interested to know the stats on how many games and mins of rugby these guys are playing in France, as players such as Wilko and Balshaw who had suffered injury problems seem to have been able to keep playing longer.

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