Martin Johnson made only one change to his starting line-up for this weekend's perilous Six Nations visit to Ireland – Toby Flood of Leicester was promoted from the bench to outside-half, with Andy Goode of Brive moving in the opposite direction – but it was the changes the manager may find himself making a year or so down the road that set tongues wagging yesterday. The Rugby Football Union's management board, deeply perturbed by the decisions of three members of their elite squad to play in France next season, issued a strongly-worded statement aimed at stopping the trend dead in its tracks.
The governing body expects any player considering a move offshore to negotiate a contract with his prospective employers that guarantees Johnson and his England staff the same access provided under the recently-activated agreement between the RFU and the Guinness Premiership clubs. The list of demands is long indeed: full release for all England activity, including training, preparation and "profiling" sessions, whatever they may be; agreement over rest weekends and medical protocols; and adherence to the principles of a 32-game limit and a 10-week off-season.
In other words, the union wants Johnson to have his pound of flesh, even if he has to reach across the Channel to get it. If there are complications – if, for instance, a Stade Français or a Brive reach the knock-out stages of the French Championship and call on their Englishmen to play for them rather than for England in a summer tour fixture – the threat is clear: Johnson will pick someone else and damn the consequences.
"I am pleased the RFU has drawn up a clear policy on these matters so the players know where they stand," the manager said at the conclusion of the board meeting. "The benefits of being in the Elite Player Squad programme are significant, and not being in that structure will inevitably affect individual players' selection chances. I am particularly concerned to see that we take the strongest squad on tour each summer as we develop towards the World Cup in 2011."
This summer tour business could be a serious stumbling block for the three Wasps players bound for France: the flanker James Haskell and the lock Tom Palmer, both of whom have agreed terms with the Parisian club Stade Français, and the centre Riki Flutey, who is leaving for Brive. Haskell and Flutey are both in the side for the match in Dublin on Saturday night – Palmer is injured at present – and both were keen to stress that their moves would not weaken their commitment to England.
Haskell insisted that "everything was in place" in terms of the contractual fine print, before revealing that he had signed only a "pre-contract" rather than a full, with-knobs-on version. "If Stade Français suddenly throw up a massive obstacle, I'll have to address it," he acknowledged. Flutey, meanwhile said Brive had been "very co-operative", adding: "By putting a release clause in the contract, they've ticked the box for me. If they hadn't, I wouldn't have been interested in going there. I'm 29 now, not 21, and it's not as if I can just sit back and light a cigar at the end of my career. Ultimately, this is about looking after my family."
But neither man could address the issue of the French Championship play-offs, which seldom, if ever, take place before June – by which time, England expect to be busy in southern climes. "I would have thought Martin would want his players to be involved in matches like semi-finals and finals," Haskell said. Apparently, Martin thinks otherwise.
It is widely anticipated that a number of top-drawer English players will drift towards France over the coming months, lured by the strength of the euro against the pound and by the absence of any meaningful salary cap in the Tricolore club game. Shane Geraghty, the brilliant young London Irish midfielder, has been linked with a move to Stade Français, and he is not alone. Yesterday's developments may make the Geraghtys of this world think twice. As for Haskell and Flutey, they have some thinking to do, too.
Johnson's decision to keep faith with the overwhelming majority of the side that gave Wales a run for their money in Cardiff was predictable enough, but he did indulge in a little tinkering on the bench. Danny Care, who performed the scrum-half role during the autumn internationals before crocking himself on some ice after one of last month's arctic training sessions, is back in the mix at the expense of Paul Hodgson. The second-string hooker, Dylan Hartley, was still struggling with a calf injury yesterday, but is expected to recover in time for the game.
France, who take on Wales in Paris tomorrow night in the first ever Six Nations weekday fixture, have made seven changes to the side that saw off Scotland in the last round. Benoît Baby, the Clermont Auvergne centre, will play in the unfamiliar role of outside-half in place of the injured Lionel Beauxis, while Morgan Parra of Bourgoin replaces Sébastien Tillous-Borde at scrum-half, largely so he can take on the kicking duties. Another Sebastien, the mighty Chabal, returns at lock, while Mathieu Bastareaud, who makes Chabal look like a seven-stone weakling, wins a first cap in midfield. Sylvain Marconnet is back at prop, with Maxime Médard shifting to full-back. Julien Malzieu will fill the hole on the right wing.
England Team (v Ireland, RBS Six Nations Championship, Croke Park, Saturday, kick-off 5.30pm)
D Armitage (London Irish); P Sackey (Wasps), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Flutey (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); T Flood (Leicester), H Ellis (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), N Kennedy (London Irish), J Haskell (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), J White (Leicester), T Croft (Leicester), L Narraway (Gloucester), D Care (Harlequins), A Goode (Brive), M Tait (Sale Sharks).Reuse content