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The Debate
  1. Rugby Union

The Debate: Should overseas players be allowed to play for England?

With an ever-increasing number of England’s top rugby talent migrating abroad, the RFU's policy of not selecting overseas-based players has once again come under the spotlight.

Henry Arundell, Jack Willis and Joe Marchant have all transferred to sides in France's affluent Top 14 division and as a result, they're now ineligible for England selection. Manu Tuilagi is set to be the latest star to head to France, with the centre agreeing a two-year deal with Bayonne.

And with more players being tempted by a lucrative move abroad, the more it hampers Steve Borthwick's plans with the national team.

Is it time for the ruling to be scrapped? Or is there a benefit to retaining the policy?

Members of the bet365 Sports and Betting News Team argue both sides of the coin in the latest episode of The Debate.

It's a no-brainer: Foreign-based players should be allowed to play for England

England’s fortunes would soon change if overseas players were allowed into the national team, for a multitude of reasons.

The first of these reasons being, simply put, that challenging themselves abroad allows a player to develop further by learning new styles and competing against the best in the world. 

Owen Farrell’s move to France will allow him to do such a thing. Facing individuals like World Player of the Year Antione Dupont, Gregory Alldritt and Ange Capuozzo on a regular basis should see him raise his game in a bid to keep up with them at the top level. 

It will also provide a new and refreshing challenge and experience for a man who is sitting the 2024 Six Nations out to prioritise his and his family’s mental wellbeing.

All you have to do is look at how much Scotland’s Finn Russell improved following a five-year spell at Racing 92. Russell was called up to Scotland’s 2023 Six Nations squad while still playing in France, and guided his country to a third-place finish, one higher than England, and with an away win at Twickenham to boot. 

The majority of South Africa’s 2023 World Cup winning squad play their domestic rugby for teams in England, France, Ireland and Japan. The same nation has won back to back World Cups since dropping a 30-cap eligibility rule for overseas players in 2017.

Surely this is evidence enough that allowing your players to play abroad only enhances the national team?

Other sports have benefitted from key players plying their trade in foreign lands too, Jude Bellingham blossomed into England’s starboy over in Germany before securing a dream move to Spanish giants Real Madrid, while Harry Kane’s imperious form for Bayern Munich has the nation dreaming of Euros success next summer.

Something worth considering too, is that the Premiership is no longer lucrative enough to keep hold of its superstars. The league cannot attract the best foreign players due to the £5m salary cap imposed on teams, furthermore it cannot keep England’s top stars who are receiving more attractive offers from, in particular, France.

It’s also an unsustainable model, as Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish have all become insolvent or ejected from the league. In fact, financial difficulty has been a constant thorn in the side of Premiership Rugby since its foundation in 1995, in the almost 30 years since then no team has found a method to become consistently profitable, relying on loans and investors.

Where do the young, upcoming players sit in this debate? 

Well it’s simple; they would benefit massively from a change in regulation. 

If the players at the top of the game could move to places like France or Japan on lucrative deals, and to play against the best in the world, then it would allow the prospects to cut their teeth in what would still be an elite rugby league, potentially facing former, experienced stars who have returned to their home country for a victory lap - similar to Bismarck du Plessis returning to South Africa after a fruitful six-year spell at Montpellier.

Retaining the RFU's overseas policy is essential for England's domestic game

While a relaxation of the rule that inhibits overseas players from representing England may be beneficial, the RFU’s overseas policy must be maintained if the country’s domestic game is to prosper.

Misgoverned and neglected, the Premiership has found itself in a perilous state. Financial mismanagement engulfed the division and the demise of storied clubs such as Wasps, Worcester Warriors and London Irish was just the tip of the iceberg.

English rugby is experiencing a reset; salary caps have been reduced and the quest for self-sustainability within the division has begun.

From an economic perspective, you can totally understand why players are seeking moves abroad; Premiership sides simply can’t compete with Top 14 outfits fiscally.

And yet if we’re to have any chance of repairing the domestic game and restoring the Premiership among the world’s elite leagues, the RFU have to do everything in their power to keep the nation’s brightest talents playing in England’s top flight.

On the eligibility criteria, England boss Steve Borthwick said: “We’ve got to create a system where the players want to stay in England. And they want to play for England because the experience they have playing for England is one that is stimulating and enjoyable. I’m hopeful those ones overseas will come back. They know I want them back.”

The RFU have drawn up a new contract model that will guarantee England regulars with an annual payment of £150,000, with players receiving their club salary on top of that. It’s hoped this agreement will lead to an improved collaboration between clubs and country.

If governed appropriately, who is to say that a more financially prosperous Premiership can’t lure back talents from across the channel?

England are not the only nation with selection restrictions; New Zealand and Ireland implement the same policy. Has it weakened their international sides? Well one is a World Cup finalist and the other completed the Grand Slam in the Six Nations last year.

Three years ago, many were calling for the IRFU to reconsider their guidelines on the selection of overseas players after a fairly miserable period for Irish rugby. 18 months later and Ireland were officially world number one, having become only the fifth touring side in history to seal a Test series triumph over New Zealand.

Citing the ineligibility of overseas players as a reason behind lacklustre performances is an easy excuse. Yes, the unavailability of Joe Marchant and Henry Arundell is of a detriment to the current England squad and yet if the domestic game had been protected sufficiently, it’s likely that we wouldn’t find ourselves in a scenario where these types of players are pursuing moves abroad.

In an ideal world, an England player could head overseas and accept a lucrative contract without fear of omission from the national team. But in this instance, the RFU must prioritise the health of the domestic game.

There’s no guarantee that retention of this policy will aid the Premiership, especially when the French continue to flex their superior financial muscle.

Commerciality is everything in modern sport and retaining household talent is imperative if the league is to grow.

And if the Premiership can thrive, English rugby can cement itself as a global powerhouse on the international stage for many years to come.

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