Freddie Burns' match-winning performance for Gloucester against Leicester on Friday was not supposed to happen. Burns, 19, was one of a clutch of promising young English fly-halves given a rare first-team chance in the past fortnight's Anglo-Welsh Cup ties but then dropped or shifted aside this weekend for the return of the Premiership.
It took a late injury to Gloucester's Wales international Nicky Robinson to give Burns his unexpected extra 80 minutes in the limelight. Not so for Alex Goode of Saracens, Harlequins' Rory Clegg, George Crook of Worcester and brothers Joe and George Ford of Leeds and Leicester respectively: replaced, in turn, by a South African, two New Zealanders, a Welshman and an Irishman.
With league points, prestige and money to play for, Premiership clubs inevitably buy and select the best squads available. But they also receive millions of pounds a year from the RFU to develop and release England players. In a highly subjective debate, familiar to football and cricket too, no one is certain of the tipping point between a youngster learning from his elders from overseas, and simply being denied the opportunity to play.
When Goode, 21, reverts to full-back for Saracens today, the fly-half will be Derick Hougaard; a Springbok making the decisions, kicking the kicks, coping with the errors. Goode's time may come but not yet. England's Under-20s reached the World Championship final last season. These are not babes in arms but adult men. Arguably, every one of them needs to be playing top club rugby right now to be ready for the 2015 World Cup on home shores. But only half a dozen of the 26-man squad are Premiership regulars. Ergo, England's options are being limited.
"The way rugby is going, you won't see more than the odd 18- or 19-year-old being a front-runner," said Andy Key, Leeds Carnegie's director of rugby. "It's 20-plus where they start to show the right maturity." Leeds have loaned 19-year-old Joe Ford to third-division Wharfedale to give him week-to-week rugby, while Ceiron Thomas, who is 26 and qualified for Wales and England, holds sway. "The only important competition for us is the Guinness Premiership," said Key. "It would be great to expose Joe in that environment, and he would be getting more game-time if we were still in the Championship, but it's all about balance."
Premier Rugby make a virtue of the figure of 61 per cent English-qualified players in this season's Premiership match squads, broadly unchanged from the 64 per cent in 1996-97. This is misleading, though, because 1996-97 was when signings of overseas players became all the rage. A mere 12 months earlier, the First Division squads on the opening day of the 1995-96 season were either entirely English or dotted with the very occasional Irishman, Welshman, Scot or itinerant Antipodean. Bath's XV, for instance, had 14 English players plus Andy Nicol; Leicester (where Key played and cut his coaching teeth) had 14 English plus Niall Malone.
Much of the core of England's 2003 World Cup-winning side was forged in an age when overseas players were almost unheard of. Among the World Cup-winners, Matt Dawson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson, Neil Back and Richard Hill became leaders in their clubs – the ones the others looked up to – when all the best players were English. That, unarguably, is no longer the case. Leeds are captained by Marco Wentzel, another ex-Bok. "We'll keep on bringing English talent through," said Key, "but it's good to have that flair from the southern hemisphere, if it's there for the right reasons."Reuse content