Foreigners shape domestic dreams of power

Mark Evans, the Saracens coach, says overseas players are of great import
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The Independent Online
Just as England have embraced the new era of professionalism, so too should they extend their arms to the ever- increasing hordes of Celts, colonials and the odd Argentinian attracted to the Courage Leagues.

The glamour the likes of Federico Mendez, Laurent Cabannes and Va'aiga Tuigamala bring to the domestic game can hardly be denied; nor can the positive benefits derived from coaches such as John Mitchell and Bob Dwyer be anything other than beneficial for the game here. But many commentators and powerful voices within the Rugby Football Union have expressed concern over the rise in the numbers of foreigners playing in Division One.

It has been argued that young British talent is being denied the opportunity to develop. The example usually quoted is that of fly-half, where at one stage this season only a few English-qualified players were first-choice for their club (and one of those, Mike Catt, hails from south of the Equator). The prima facie evidence is overwhelming until you realise that this situation has not been created overnight. If the young talent is out there, why did the national Under-21 XV pick a talented outside-back (Paul Sampson) at fly-half for their first two representative games this season?

Exactly how many top-class fly-halves have England produced in the past 30 years when the domestic game has been almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon? The names hardly trip off the tongue. England's only Lions in that position since 1966 have been Rob Andrew, Stuart Barnes and Alan Old. For some reason it has always been a difficult area for England - and the recent wave of imports has not brought this about.

The development of talent has never been a strength of the English game, partly because there have not been enough top sides. In the past 10 years a huge number of age-group internationals have joined the likes of Bath and Harlequins, only for many to disappear from the scene. Ambitious young players will always be attracted to the very top clubs - the Manchester United syndrome - and one of the most encouraging things about this season is there are now so many "top" clubs.

It may well be the same amount of talent will then be spread more widely, be given more attention and therefore develop more quickly. Paradoxically, if foreign imports can help produce a more competitive league, with up to 10 clubs on a similar footing, more English players will have more opportunities to play at a higher level.

Indeed many of the critics of the overseas influx are the same people who demand a northern hemisphere equivalent of the Super 12 competition. To my mind you cannot have it both ways: either you go with an all-English, low-quality competition (for a model just look at the Welsh League) or you accept a cosmopolitan, multi-national Courage League that attracts players from Europe alongside a sprinkling of Antipodeans, and provides the framework so necessary for the England side to become a world power in the game again.

In England we have more people playing rugby than any other country in the world. Participation is not a problem - and the RFU must take great credit for its junior and youth programmes - but we need a higher level of regular competition on a weekly basis. Foreign players are not the whole answer but they are a help.

We may also have to consider the scope for marketing that global superstars such as Francois Pienaar and Michael Lynagh provide at Saracens. All sports need their role models, people who are easily identifiable and project a positive image. Rugby is not used to such personalities and the English in particular can be suspicious of them - but if the sport is to achieve its potential then we must embrace such opportunities. Make no mistake, international stars will attract new spectators to the sport.