Outcast: England’s Problem With Armitage

The European Champions Cup final at the weekend displayed many things: the dominance of French rugby in Europe, the dominance of Toulon’s rugby in France, and, above all else for English fans, the dominance of England’s outcast hero in Toulon, Steffon Armitage.

Armitage has been dominating headlines for the best part of the last year, with disgruntled fans and flabbergasted pundits alike calling for his selection in the England XV. Although he played well at London Irish and made his England debut whilst at that club, Armitage has flourished since his move to Toulon in 2011, being showered with praise at every turn. None of this attention is unwarranted: one of the most effective flankers in the modern game, Armitage has perfected the art of ruck turnovers.

Despite being only 5ft 9”, a relative dwarf in the modern game, he has incredible strength and is stupendously quick to get over the ball after a tackle, generally resulting in a turnover for Toulon. Away from the contact, Armitage also has the ability to spot gaps in the defensive line and the speed to exploit them; in Saturday’s final, he split the Clermont line with all the poise of an inside-centre.

Such is his prowess that last year he won the coveted ERC European Player of the Year award, and has been nominated for the same award a second year running. If he wins it again then there will be tremendous clout for his participation in the England XV during the run-up to the World Cup, clout beyond that of the chorus of voices calling for his inclusion. Even his fellow Toulon players, some of whom would play against Armitage in the World Cup pool stages, have been lobbying Stuart Lancaster in the media. In the post-match press conference on Saturday, Toulon captain and former All Black Carl Hayman said:

“I think Steffon Armitage definitely deserves to go to the World Cup this year with England…it’s not playing ability that’s stopping him making the squad, it’s a political decision”

As Hayman alluded to, the reason behind Armitage being ostracised lies with the RFU’s policy to not pick players based overseas, unless in ‘exceptional circumstances’. Given that the European Player of the Year has so far been left out, we must assume that these circumstances simply refer to extreme cases of a depleted squad, not for exceptional talent. Whilst this might seem a ridiculous rule, there is good intention behind it; this policy is generally seen as all there is standing in the way of England’s most talented abdicating to France, where clubs will offer lucrative wages for their services.

In this way, the English Premiership is kept more exciting. The other, perhaps more crucial, reason is that by having the England XV playing at RFU mandated clubs, Lancaster and his coaching staff can have direct control over how their players are being handled, and better monitor them. There is a strong argument that the current English national side is only as good as it is because Lancaster is able to keep in constant contact with his players and dictate how they are utilised.

So far, Lancaster has kept to this policy religiously. Even when both Tom Wood and Ben Morgan were injured at the beginning of this year’s Six Nations, he refused to consider Armitage. Some will see this as stubborn short-sightedness, others will hail his bravery for sticking with the players he has developed and nurtured. Sticking to the point at hand, Armitage does not look to be included in England’s 45-man training squad for the World Cup, unless Lancaster has a sudden change of heart and yields to external pressure. It would, however, be a potentially fatal thing to do.

Sowing discord and disunity within the training camp directly before a home World Cup is one of the worst things Lancaster could do at this stage; the team needs consistency and familiarity to flourish

Consider the implications. England’s captain of the past four years, Chris Robshaw, plays in the same position as Armitage; casually moving one of them to the blindside is an unattractive option, particularly with the risk of disgruntling Robshaw. Beyond that, including a player from France by bastardising the exceptional circumstances clause would send a message to other English players: one that tells them not to worry about moving to France, they can just come back in time for the next World Cup. Some English players, Tom Wood amongst others, have spoken publicly against breaking the rule, for that reason.

Sowing discord and disunity within the training camp directly before a home World Cup is one of the worst things Lancaster could do at this stage; the team needs consistency and familiarity to flourish. As it stands, only England and New Zealand have retained the policy of excluding foreign-based players; perhaps it is no coincidence that these are the two favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in Twickenham.

As has been made fairly obvious, Lancaster is in somewhat of a pickle. Armitage is without doubt one of the best players England could possibly select for this year’s tournament. He would introduce a star quality which is, arguably, one of the few things missing from this current England squad. Yet by making that move, Lancaster could set into motion a chain of events with potentially devastating implications for this national side, both long and short-term.

There is no obvious answer to this predicament. England’s opponents would shudder with fear at the sight of Armitage bearing the red rose, but his teammates may well have different opinions. Lancaster will most likely stick to his guns and regrettably discount Armitage; if England then suffer later this year, there may well be probing questions.

Jack Hart

Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackrhart

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