I guess there are plenty of people out there, particularly down in the southern hemisphere, who are amused to see English rugby – in particular, the Rugby Football Union – in a degree of discomfort over the decisions of three members of the current Test squad, including a seriously good international prospect in James Haskell, to leave the domestic game and head for pastures new in France. Let’s face it: the Guinness Premiership isn’t exactly short of imports from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Now the boot is on the other foot, the Sanzar nations are bound to find it funny.
But I’m not at all sure the departures of Haskell, Riki Flutey and Tom Palmer represent a doomsday scenario for the professional game in this country, despite the panic-stricken reaction from some quarters. We’re in the modern world now – a world where money talks, and where an opportunity to perform alongside some of the very best players around talks even louder. Haskell and Palmer are not leaving for any old club: they’re leaving for Stade Français, who play their rugby in Paris, sometimes in front of 80,000 paying customers, and have some spectacular talent on their books. When a team like Stade go after you, it’s a big call to knock them back.
Which is not to suggest that Wasps, where all three of these blokes currently play their rugby, are a small club. Their record of success is pretty special, not least in Europe, where their two Heineken Cup titles compare very favourably to Stade Français’ none. But they are a high- achieving club who do what they do on a relatively tight budget and it is inevitable that they will lose people at certain points in the cycle. As a young player becomes more successful, his value in the market can rise by multiples of three or four. When that happens, a tipping point is quickly reached.
It seems to me that Haskell, the most talked about of the three, was telling the truth when he said that money was not the principal motivating force behind his decision. Flutey might be a little different – he, after all, is a fair bit older, is already a long way from his home in New Zealand, and wants to take his chances while he can. But Haskell, a strong player with a long future ahead of him as well as a bright one, could easily have cashed in heavily here in England, so there must be more to it from his perspective. I think he asked himself whether he really wanted to play against Wasps, who have brought him through their academy, in a Premiership match next season, and decided he didn’t. I can understand that.
There is no reason why Martin Johnson and the rest of the England management shouldn’t keep him at the forefront of their minds. It’s not as if he’s pushed off to Sydney or Auckland: he’s just across the water, a quick flight away, and if he really wants to, Martin can pop over a see him train, as well as play. (I have to say I was pretty surprised to hear the manager say he hadn’t been down to Brive to watch Andy Goode before picking him at the start of the Six Nations).
Another thought occurs to me, in response to some comments from Premiership coaches that Haskell won’t find the consistent level of competition in France that he gets here in England. I’m good friends with my countryman Ewen McKenzie, who coaches Stade Français, and I can tell you he disagrees with that view pretty profoundly. Yes, there are teams in the Top 14 who operate below the standard we’ve come to expect in the elite league here, but the best sides in France – Toulouse, Perpignan, Clermont Auvergne and so on – are seriously good.
Just look at the back-rowers the Parisians already have: Mauro Bergamasco (a better flanker than he is a scrum-half, you’ll agree); Juan Leguizamon, the powerful Argentine forward; and Sergio Parisse, one of the world’s best without a doubt. You can’t tell me someone like Haskell won’t benefit from playing with these people, or that when he returns to England, he won’t be better for the experience. Always assuming, of course, that he makes the Stade Français team.