When England line up against France at Twickenham this Saturday, their squad is likely to contain three players who have been featuring for club teams across the English Channel this season. The wrong side of the Channel as one Martin Johnson and the RFU may see it.
Indeed in December the RFU announced that after the World Cup, it would be their “absolute intention” to select the England team purely from those playing for English clubs, and would only resort to selecting overseas-based players in “exceptional circumstances”. Quite how this will work in practice is open to debate, but the overriding message is clear: play your rugby outside of England and so accept that your international future may be at risk.
Johnson clearly prefers his players to be based on home soil, but the advantages of having England nationals exhibiting their talents in the Top 14 have become increasingly apparent. Firstly, in the recent resurgence of James Haskell, who, whilst playing against admittedly weak opposition, followed an encouraging display against Wales with the sort of rampaging all-action performance against Italy that had become synonymous with his early days at Wasps. His strong running has always remained an asset, however whilst playing at Stade, Haskell has returned to the fundamentals of back row play, and is far more effective in the tackle area and at the breakdown as a result.
But dwarfing Haskell’s mini-revival is the continued rise of a player who has quickly become one of Johnson’s most important players. After being a peripheral figure in the England camp for the best part of a decade, Tom Palmer has been a revelation in the second row since Johnson handed him his first start under his tenure, in what turned out to be a remarkable forward performance in the loss against Australia last Summer. Palmer, who was recently labelled as “near enough the complete forward” by forwards coach John Wells, has worked hard on his imperfections throughout his career, and has taken on a new level of responsibility whilst at Stade Francais, which he is beginning to incorporate into his role with England.
Completing the trio of travellers is Jonny Wilkinson. Beginning with a number of impressive performances, Wilkinson endeared himself to the French fans and the golden boy of Toulon has been embraced with the sort of warmth and congeniality that flies in the face of French coach Marc Lievremont’s comments earlier this week. Wilkinson has thrived under the French sun and behind the strong Toulon pack, and it is only the form of the increasingly assured Toby Flood that will keep him from starting on Saturday.
With Haskell facing a tough challenge to keep returning captain Lewis Moody out of the team and Wilkinson almost certain to be selected amongst the reserves, only Palmer is guaranteed a starting place from this group of expats. But Palmer, like both Haskell and Wilkinson, has acquired invaluable first-hand experience of how to play, and win, against the French. Citing in a recent interview the importance of “boring” the French and the need to work hard in the set-piece, as well as pre-meditating Lievremont’s rant with an “everyone wants to beat the English” message of his own, Palmer is showing an increasing awareness as he matures within this England side.
If Johnson can rely on the knowledge of Palmer, Haskell and Wilkinson to plot the downfall of the French this weekend, then perhaps he may be forced to quietly admit that some of these French sojourns (or not, as they may turn out to be) may have been rather beneficial after all.
By Tom James