Bath, down to their last senior back-row forward thanks to injury and suspension, were still scouring the rugby landscape for emergency reinforcements on Wednesday, bitterly frustrated by the Rugby Football Union’s refusal to help fund a big-money move for the international flanker Steffon Armitage.
Talks with the European champions Toulon about a short-term transfer broke down earlier this week and unless the two clubs reach a financial understanding in double-quick time, Armitage will remain in France, out of reach of the England coaches less than a year before the home World Cup.
The Armitage affair was the talk of the union parish, with the Northampton flanker Tom Wood, a member of England’s current first-choice loose combination, stating openly that he would relish the chance to defend his place against all-comers. “I want to be in the England side on merit,” he said. “I want to be there because I’m the best player in my position, not because someone is unavailable on a technicality.”
Under RFU policy, which the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, says he fully supports, no player will be picked for red rose duty from abroad unless there are “exceptional circumstances”. Those circumstances take no account of “talent” or “ability”: the fact that Armitage, nicknamed the “Lionel Messi of rugby” following a run of spectacular performances on the Cote d’Azur, is now routinely counted among the most effective open-side operators in the world game is neither here nor there as far as Twickenham is concerned.
Wood, one of the sharper-minded analysts in the England ranks, readily acknowledged that Armitage had earned his stellar reputation through the consistency of his performances in Top 14 and Heineken Cup rugby. But he also said that some of the commentary surrounding the make-up of the red rose back-row combination had been simplistic.
“People who talk about the need for an out-and-out breakdown scavenger, or a ‘fetcher’ or whatever you want to call him, miss the point that if someone spends the entire game looking for turnovers at the tackle, he might not be doing other things,” he said. “The key to a successful back row is balance. Anyway, from what I’ve seen of Steffon, there is more to his game than being strong on the ball at the breakdown. I think his ball-carrying work is equally impressive. It’s interesting that Toulon often play him at No 8 rather than on the flank.”
Toulon, winners of the last two Heineken Cup titles and among the favourites to prevail in the first season of European Rugby Champions Cup, have yet to name their side for this weekend’s opening Pool Three match against Scarlets, the Welsh regional side. If Armitage takes the field, he will be cup-tied for the rest of the campaign and of precious little use to Bath – or, indeed, any other English club.
Tonight, the European business begins with a second-tier Challenge Cup match between Gloucester and Brive at Kingsholm. Billy Meakes, an Australian back who joined the Cherry and Whites in February and was one of their star turns throughout a successful domestic seven-a-side programme in the summer, makes his senior debut at outside-centre, alongside the England midfielder Billy Twelvetrees. There are also changes to the pack, where the loose-head prop Yann Thomas is given a first start of the season and James Hudson returns to the engine room.
Brive, a pioneering Heineken Cup side who won the title in 1997, have lost much of their lustre over the last 15 years and have been known to field weakened sides in Europe in an effort to concentrate on domestic league performance. It will be of some concern to the administrators that only three players who started the Top 14 game at Grenoble last weekend, the backs Alifeleti Mafi and Thomas Sanchou and the outside-half Riaan Swanepoel, feature this evening.Reuse content