Six Nations 2023: Should foreign players be selected for England?

Luke Cowan-Dickie runs with the ball for England
Luke Cowan-Dickie will play in France after the 2023 World Cup

As concerns about English rugby union finances have increased over the past year, several players have opted to earn a living abroad instead.

Premiership salaries have been squeezed after the cap was raised by £1.4m from the 2021-22 season.

Rugby Football Union rules do not allow overseas-based players to be selected for England – but an exception has been made for former Wasps and Worcester players after those clubs were closed.

The intention of the rule – introduced in 2011 – aims to protect the quality of the English league by ensuring the best English players play in it and give the RFU more control and better access to England or potential English players.

Head coach Steve Borthwick called for a rethink in politics to allow him to choose from all qualified players for England and said discussions on the subject were “ongoing”.

With the help of former England internationals Ugo Monye and Danny Care, here’s a look at some of the key issues facing foreign player selection, as well as some possible solutions.

Why are more players going abroad?

As Care points out on the Rugby Union Daily podcast, many Premiership clubs are in a “grimly dire state of distress” financially.

Wasps followed Worcester into administration in October 2022 and they are not the only clubs struggling to recover from Covid-19.

Money poured into England rugby union after a home World Cup in 2015, but the landscape is different now.

“Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, rugby players have had to accept that their market value has changed,” explains BBC Rugby Union correspondent Chris Jones.

“A rugby player might have to accept that where he used to be a £200,000 player, he’s now a £100,000 player.”

As a result, several players have agreed to move to France, which will likely mean avoiding a pay cut.

Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and back row Sam Simmonds are heading to Montpellier at the end of the season – after the World Cup – while Northampton lock David Ribbans is set to move to Toulon and Harlequins center Joe Marchant has primed a move to the Stade Francais.

With current English selection rules, this means they are putting their international careers on hold.

“They have to think financially about playing for England,” adds Jones.

Why would the RFU change its rule?

Monye says he would have been “completely against” players at foreign clubs representing England 10 years ago, but adds that “extraordinary circumstances” with Covid-19 and the reduction in the salary cap require a rethink.

The RFU have already said that players like Jack Willis, who was forced to move to Toulouse after Wasps took office, may be selected for England given the circumstances of his move abroad.

Both Monye and Care believe the selection rule could be relaxed in the short term until English rugby gets back on its feet financially.

“I just don’t think our game can sustain all the England internationals at the moment – we just don’t have the finances for it,” said Monye.

“Steve Borthwick’s job is to select the very best players. With so many traveling to France, he may have lost some of that ability.

“If it takes two years before the salary cap is raised again, I think that would be a really good compromise.”

Another consideration for the RFU is whether to introduce a minimum cap rule.

The minimum number of caps a player must have to qualify for the Wales selection when stationed abroad has been reduced from 60 to 25 following a row between Welsh players and rugby bosses.

Care believes there should be a similar policy if the RFU rule changes to keep the ‘best young players’ in England.

However, Monye says this should be done on a case-by-case basis. For example, Monye believes full-back Freddie Steward, as one of England’s stars, might have more scope than young scrum half Jack van Poortvliet, who has much more competition for his starting spot.

What would be the pros and cons for the players?

Care says that given the risk of injury in such a sport, some players may not find it worth the reduced salary.

Lawyers representing more than 185 ex-rugby union players have launched court cases against the governing bodies of Rugby Football Union, Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby over brain damage suffered by their clients.

“I will always advocate that players should take care of themselves because I’ve seen this game destroy a lot of people,” says Care.

“If you’re a sober prop who has to put so much pressure on your neck and back day in and day out and someone says they can only give you 40% of what they have been… I don’t think it’s worth it it potentially has the life-altering issues that many of these big forwards will have when they stop playing.”

Whilst there are financial benefits to playing in France, there may also be additional playing time during international windows.

Scotland star Finn Russell played for French club Racing 92 against Toulouse on Sunday, a week before he will represent his country in a Six Nations crunch match against Ireland.

In England, Premiership players could stay in camp with the national team but Willis was not selected for the Six Nations opener after missing some training while still with Toulouse.

Monye says plays need to “understand the risk involved in potentially going to France” because “you lose some of that protection”.

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