Johnson faces fresh tug of war with French over access to key players

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The Independent Online

England will head for a Six Nations training camp in Portugal later this month, always assuming Portugal is still open for business on the day of departure, and Martin Johnson expects all 33 members of his senior squad to travel. Unfortunately for the red-rose manager, who regards this trip as the foundation stone of his tournament preparations, there are powerful figures in French club rugby who have different priorities and want James Haskell, Tom Palmer and some bloke called Wilkinson to stay behind.

The camp coincides with a midweek round of matches in the Top 14 championship – the French equivalent of the Aviva Premiership – and as Stade Français and Toulon, the two teams who have current England international personnel under contract, are far from certain of qualifying for next season's Heineken Cup, they are reluctant to field understrength sides when points are at stake.

"Discussions are ongoing," said Twickenham's outgoing director of elite rugby, Rob Andrew, yesterday. "We're working our way through the issues with our French partners." Partners? There is no entente cordiale when it comes to England player access, as both Andrew and Johnson have made that abundantly clear. Indeed, the two men indicated last month that once this year's World Cup is out of the way, anyone signing for a French club – or any foreign club, come to that – would be kissing his England career goodbye.

In a fortnight's time, Stade Français visit Castres while Toulon welcome La Rochelle to their stadium on the shores of the Mediterranean. As things stand, the Parisians are ninth in the domestic league, with Toulon holding onto sixth by the skin of their teeth. Both could miss out on Heineken Cup qualification quite easily, such is the logjam in the middle of the table.

Haskell, who was involved in a long and fractious tug-of-love between country and club during last season's Six Nations, is regarded as a key member of the Stade Français squad, as is Palmer. Wilkinson, who has just signed for another two years with Toulon, puts so many bums on seats when he appears for Philippe Saint-André's side that his value is calculated in commercial terms as much as competitive ones.

Even if the two clubs release them for the Portugal trip, there will be more fun and games on the immediate horizon. Further Top 14 matches are scheduled for the first of the Six Nations' mid-tournament breaks on the weekend of 19 February, and there will be a further round on 5 March, which is also international-free. On the latter weekend, both Stade Français and Toulon play matches – against Perpignan and Clermont Auvergne respectively – that will go a long way towards deciding whether they qualify for Europe. Unquestionably, they will want their England players to be available.

"It's inevitable that the players will come under pressure to return," said Andrew, aware that Johnson's declared preference is to keep all his Six Nations personnel in camp for the duration of the tournament. "But we've been absolutely consistent from day one, with both the players and the clubs concerned, about what we expect. If Martin thinks some people need a game at some point during the Six Nations period and says they can play, that's his decision. If not, that's his decision too."

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the manager will play ball with the French in March. "It might be good for guys who have been sitting on the bench to go back," he said yesterday. "It's the same with the majority of the players who are with clubs here in England. I get phone calls all the time from directors of rugby who want us to make people available, and when that happens, we have the conversation."

However, the likelihood is that Johnson will hang onto his Gallic Gang for dear life. Palmer is a first-choice lock, while Haskell is more likely to start for England now Tom Croft is injured. As for Wilkinson, no manager in his right mind would want someone with the injury record from hell to put himself at unnecessary risk in World Cup year.

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