Luke McAlister could be the latest southern hemisphere international to book his one way plane ticket to Europe after declaring his ambition to join Sale Sharks.If he leaves New Zealand, he will join the likes of Aaron Mauger, Carl Hayman, Chris Jack and Rico Gear in England’s Guinness Premiership next season. However, the influx of international players raises questions about the future of the game.
As far as the Guinness Premiership is concerned, the quality of rugby will surely be enhanced. Not only will there be some world-class players on show week in week out, but the standard of the other players will be raised by training and playing with these stars. Attendance rates are bound to increase, generating all-important revenue for the clubs.
However, what impact will there be on England’s international setup? The skills and performance of English players may be improved to some extent, but if they are not getting enough game time because the foreign players are in their position, this will surely be detrimental to their development. If Premiership clubs are able simply to buy the best players in the world thanks to a super-rich investor, what incentive is there for nurturing homegrown talent?
The role of the European governing bodies will be crucial in controlling this trend. Clubs will be offered bonuses for the number of players that they provide to the international squad, encouraging them to develop English players, striking a balance between investment in foreign players and investment in their academies. However, with the historic turbulence of the club versus country row in England, a satisfactory agreement always seems hard to reach.
Many people oppose the arrival of international players claiming that rugby union is on the same slippery slope of professionalism as football and rugby league. In these sports, it is not that uncommon to see English league games between club sides with barely an English player, and both sports’ international records are not exactly something to aspire to.
Next season’s European domestic rugby scene will be one of the most colourful ever, with the Guinness Premiership, Magners League and French leagues showcasing top rugby names, and the Heineken Cup will be even more special. But let’s hope this latest turn in rugby’s professional era does not further catapult England and the other European nations down the IRB rankings.