Andrew Sheridan, the loose-head prop whose form for England during the autumn internationals re-established him as one of the sport's leading tight forwards, has yet to reveal whether the lure of French riches will lead him to Toulon after next year's World Cup in New Zealand. This much is certain, however: if he crosses the water in pursuit of Mediterranean money, his international career will end pretty much there and then.
England intend to play hardball on the issue of foreign-based personnel in an effort to maximise preparation for their own World Cup in 2015. John Steele, still in his first few months as chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, has written to all members of national squads, from the Test contingent down, warning them that they will have virtually no chance of being considered for representative duty unless they are playing for English clubs. He has written to their agents, also, to reinforce the point.
As things stand, three members of England's senior squad play in France: Tom Palmer and James Haskell with the Parisian club Stade Français, Jonny Wilkinson with Toulon, who occupy an extremely elevated position on European rugby's rich list. All are likely to make the cut for the forthcoming World Cup, despite the red-rose hierarchy's dissatisfaction with their current arrangements. After the tournament, it will be a different story, as Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham, made clear yesterday.
"We've had some difficulties with the French clubs regarding the players who are playing over there, and we don't want young England players who we believe will be good international performers in both the short and medium terms going abroad," Andrew said. "It causes problems with player management, because even though everything is meant to be in place contractually, there tend to be issues over interpretation. It's hard enough with two or three playing in France. Can you imagine the problem if we had 10 of our squad over there? It would be virtually impossible for us.
"Our agreement with the Premiership clubs on player access is beginning to work well for us: these things take time, but now, two years into the deal, we're seeing the fruits. We want our hard work safeguarded. We held our line when there was a problem with Stade Français over Haskell during last season's Six Nations, and while we hope there won't be an issue during this season's tournament, we'll hold our line again if it happens. It's paramount that ahead of the 2011 World Cup, Martin Johnson [the team manager] has what he needs to protect the integrity of the England team. Ahead of 2015, we want to ensure we can manage all our players in the best possible way."
Wilkinson has already indicated a desire to sign a new deal with Toulon, but it is unlikely that Johnson, or any other England manager, would consider him a candidate for Test rugby post-2011. Like the outside-half, Palmer is on the wrong side of 30, as is Sheridan, and after next year's global gathering, the selectors will turn their attention to a new generation of forwards. Haskell, however, is 25, and therefore in a different position. So too is Danny Cipriani, in Australia preparing for a first Super 15 series with the Melbourne Rebels, and the last thing Andrew wants to see this time next year, when rugby's marketplace will be at its liveliest, is more of the best young talent being tempted overseas.
Conscious that European employment law might complicate matters, Andrew left himself an inch or so of wriggle room. "This is our intention," he remarked. "In exceptional circumstances, we might pick from abroad." But to all intents and purposes, the die is cast. Any English player targeting the 2015 World Cup will have to target it from a place in the shires rather than a place in the sun.
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