It is an issue that is likely to burst wide open once again in the coming weeks as our old friends the politicians prepare to bombard us with more heavy shelling from the trenches. The Rugby Football Union's Reform Group is proposing the establishment of a new generation of "super clubs" with up to 90 per cent of the places ring-fenced for England-qualified players. Can it be right, they ask, that the most complete stand-offs on view each Saturday should be two former-All Blacks, two Frenchmen and an ambitious little thirtysomething from Pietermaritzburg? Good question.
Of course, the balloon really will go up if Clive Woodward asks Joel Stransky to attach a red rose to the very part of his breast that once bore a dancing Springbok. There is no doubt that in a perfect world, the England coach would not contemplate asking Leicester's hugely accomplished South African to steer the country with the biggest playing population on the planet through the highs and lows of this year's World Cup. Imperfection is the curse of the age, though. It now seems clear that Woodward will indeed bite the pragmatic bullet if he decides there is no alternative. You have to feel for the bloke. His predicament merely underlines the knicker-twisting complexity of the foreign legion debate.
"It's very difficult, all this," Woodward agreed this week. "I know what I think should be happening. I think that the clubs and the union should be standing on the same side of the fence and working together to produce the best possible conditions for England's success at international level. I think that the union should be pumping money into the clubs, in much the same way as the Test and County Cricket Board helps finance the counties. I still look at other rugby nations and envy the systems they have put in place to ensure a flow of talent through the ranks.
"But when push comes to shove, I have to come at things as a professional coach running a professional team, even though I'm effectively having to do it through 12 or 14 other companies and have no real input into what goes on with the players in so far as no club coach is likely to select according to my wishes. In the end, England expects. Especially in World Cup year. This is a business enterprise as well as a sporting one and there are a lot of things at stake, not least my job. If someone like Stransky is genuinely the best man for the task and the regulations allow me to pick him, then I'd be daft not to consider it.
"I fully accept, though, that it would be an indictment of our own system. I've nothing against foreign players earning their living in the Premiership; as long as clubs aren't picking them over and above English talent just because they happen to be paying them a fortune, then fine. But I get a little impatient with the constant comparisons with football. Rugby isn't at all like football. Football is a level playing field; most major football leagues are stacked with imports. It's different with rugby. You don't see outsiders playing Super 12 rugby, do you?"
No one knows better than Woodward how the purple-faced traditionalists are likely to react if he rejects Little Englandism and clambers into bed with the open door brigade; after all, it was only a year or so ago that the coach himself was banging the nationalist drum like Buddy Rich on steroids.
But 18 long months in the political crossfire have changed him. There are, he now realises, no simple answers or cosy solutions. Only differences of opinion.
The import problem, if indeed it is a problem, is merely one of the more pressing in an entire catalogue of dilemmas. Joost van der Westhuizen, Gary Teichmann, Josh Kronfeld, Ian Jones and dear old Jonah Lomu have all been linked with moves to England after the World Cup. If Van der Westhuizen goes to Saracens and Teichmann to Wasps, what happens to Kyran Bracken and Lawrence Dallaglio? Will they stay, or will they go?
On the other hand, virtually every England Test regular revels in the heady cultural and tactical mix that gives the Premiership its uniqueness.
"Negative comments about overseas players come from outside the game," says Jeremy Guscott in this month's Rugby World magazine. "Premiership players all believe the foreign signings have had a big impact on the professional game over here. The way I see it, an overseas player has to make his mark both on the field and in how he integrates into the club and community.
"Francois Pienaar had clearly done this. Others, like Trevor Leota, took a little time to settle, but is now doing a tremendous job."
Ask Bracken, for instance, to put a price on the experience of playing between Pienaar and Michael Lynagh for a season and he will quote you the rugby equivalent of seven figures. Ask young David Flatman, one of the brightest front-row prospects to emerge in many years (and a pure- bred Englishman from Kent, to boot) what it means to learn the tricks of the trade from Roberto Grau, and he will answer you in a single word: "Everything."
And it is not just in England that the mood is changing; the ultra-conservative Celts are suddenly very right-on when it comes to recruitment. It will not be long before the Scots field a side with barely a real Scot in it: you will wait a very long time for an "och aye" from Glenn Metcalfe, Shaun Longstaff, John Leslie, Matthew Proudfoot, Martin Leslie or Gordon Simpson. As for Ireland, no fewer than 11 of the side who pushed France to within a point in Dublin a week ago are either playing their rugby in the English Premiership or did so in the previous 12 months.
So, in answer to an earlier question, we have not reached meltdown point. Rather, the melting pot is bubbling away to the benefit of most, if not all.
You may not agree with the Premiership XV published here: you might prefer Keith Wood to Federico Mendez, Kevin Putt to Bracken, Zinzan Brooke to Pat Lam, Stransky to Stephen Bachop. So what? At least you have the choice.
CHRIS HEWETT'S PREMIERSHIP XV
15 Conor O'Shea (London Irish and Ireland): Gavin Hastings on speed. A buccaneering full-back to die for.
14 Justin Bishop (London Irish and Ireland): Quicker than most, more confident than any and bristling with aggression.
13 Rob Henderson (Wasps and Ireland): A tank on legs. Nothing false or cosmetic, apart from his day-glo hair.
12 Brendan Venter (London Irish and South Africa): The complete inside centre: completely committed, completely professional.
11 Niall Woods (London Irish and Ireland): Great finishing, terrific goal-kicking. The Irish are mad not to pick him.
10 Steve Bachop (London Irish and New Zealand): Monster talent. Better conductor than Solti and enough vision to fill a Bible.
9 Kyran Bracken (Saracens and England): Operating on all four cylinders. The best scrum-half in Europe on current estimates.
1 Trevor Woodman (Gloucester and English): A new kid on the Kingsholm block, but putting his powder-puff clubmates to shame.
2 Federico Mendez (Northampton and Argentina): Hated Bath, loves Franklins Gardens. A happy Freddy is one dangerous customer.
3 Paul Wallace (Saracens and Ireland): Quick, intelligent, highly skilled. Can this be a prop forward we're talking about?
4 Martin Johnson (Leicester and England): Back on song. More dependable than a best mate, more threatening than a worst enemy.
5 Malcolm O'Kelly (London Irish and Ireland): A genuine new-age lock: more Michael Jordan than Bill Beaumont. Pure class.
6 Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps and England): On the boil or off it, the warrior king remains an inspiration. A born leader.
7 Duane Monkley (West Hartlepool and New Zealand A): The "Mooloo Man" flies in, the no-hopers start fronting up. A coincidence?
8 Pat Lam (Northampton and Western Samoa): Need a winning try in the last minute? Give it to Pat, he'll see you home. Brilliant.Reuse content