Some old rivalries will never die. The Blues of Manchester hate the glory-hunting Reds and, as we are seeing in the world of cricket, there is no love lost between the Aussies and, well, anyone who isn't an Aussie. These are the stare-outs that make sport so much fun to watch and be a part of.
The RFU have just added their own dash of spice to a traditionallyfraught sporting relationship by declaring that, unless the circumstances are "exceptional", English players choosing to take employment in France (or, actually, anywhere outside the Premiership but how many top English players are flooding to Wales or Scotland?) will not be considered for England selection after the next World Cup.
But this isn't a modern-day repeat of Mickey Skinner's 1991 tête-à-tête with Eric Champ in Paris; this is all about control. You see rugby isn't like football, a fact for which we are all eternally grateful (besides the wages, of that we are plain jealous); if Fabio Capello wants a player, he names him in his squad and he arrives at training. England rugby squads are named early and must be stuck to. Of course, there is always a way to get someone involved by accessing the odd loophole but the system is, by definition, more complex. This is because everybody – meaning the clubs – likes to know where they stand and, in basic terms, who they are likely to lose.
There are, no doubt, all sorts of legal ramifications here involving terms like "restriction of trade" but, when thought of as a purely sporting equation, I don't really think it makes sense. So, I therefore don't really think this is all about sport; I think that in a sense the RFU have had their hand forced. We all know that French Top 14 wages are incomparable with those here in the Aviva Premiership and, whether or not this model is sustainable, this will always be attractive to professionals involved in a dangerous sport for a short time. Word of mouth leads us to believe, though, that with this crazy level of expenditure comes an equally crazy form of club management. Very rarely have I heard any French club – even the top ones – described in glowing terms. I shan't betray any confidences here but one player said it best: "I honestly don't know how they do so well in Europe, the place is an absolute circus." Yes, they must be getting something right, but this affirmation does little to dilutethe feeling that French rugby is a volatile environment.
Back in March, James Haskell was, through no fault of his own, caught in the middle of a row between his club, Stade Français, and England. When Stade's request that he return to face Toulouse in the Top 14 was turned down, their owner, Max Guazzini, accused the RFU of "keeping Haskell prisoner". Amusing though the comment was to lots of us, the bods at HQ probably weren't laughing. What this incident did was give us an insight into the passionate, at times irrational, world of French rugby: exotic and rich, yes, but fickle, too. And this is no way to do business.
No coach in his right mind would want to deny a player all the experience he could gain, and nobody could question the benefits of a few seasons playing for Toulouse or Perpignan. But when the game is finished and the time comes to communicate, old habits surface. Humans tend to choose the easiest route to their desired destination, and dealing with the French seems like hard work.
What will probably happen is that far fewer young, aspiring players will move to France, despite the money to be earned. Those more likely to "opt out" will be the 30-somethings with less still to prove and families to feed. Dean Schofield and Kris Chesney are perfect examples; not in the national reckoning but still great assets to any club side, they are performing very nicely for Toulon and loving every minute.
The big issues will come with players like Jonny Wilkinson. One suspects his circumstances might be "exceptional", and understandably so. When he inevitably sidesteps the new ruling there will be shrieks of injustice from the likes of Jamie Noon – playing at Brive – and Paul Sackey of Toulon. My solution would be all peace and love. Get everyone round a table, crack open a bottle of wine and discuss it like rugby men over a steak. "Can we have the lads when we need them, please?" "Bien sur, mon copain." There might need to be a bit of compensation thrown the way of the French owners, but it's not as if the RFU are on the breadline.
Hang on a minute, my negotiation technique seems to be centred around wine, red meat and money. That's not very British. Perhaps we have more in common than we imagined. Second thoughts, scrap that, tell those blasted French to do as they're told. There, that's better.