Peter Bills: Overseas players are killing English rugby

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The Independent Online

We know the myth well enough.

The Guinness Premiership is awash with overseas stars. The likes of Schalk Brits, Saracens' South African hooker, Aaron Mauger and Scott Hamilton, Leicester's New Zealanders, Butch James, Michael Claassens and Luke Watson, the South Africans at Bath, Nick Evans, the New Zealander at Harlequins... the list seems endless.

Emotions run high in this particular debate. Some promulgate the view that English rugby is enormously enhanced by the presence of so many overseas stars because they add knowledge, attitude and experience and are good for young English players around them.

Others mutter that the Guinness Premiership ought to be a breeding ground solely for present and future England players, not a pension pot for overseas stars.

Well, the official figures show that almost 65% of those who play in the Premiership are English qualified. A total of 35% overseas players? That hardly seems excessive.

Yet if you want a blitz of statistics, digest the following and ponder their implication. More than a quarter of a million people play rugby in England on a fairly regular basis, a figure far in excess of most other countries not only in this part of the world but also in countries like Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, since the World Cups of 2003 and 2007, the Rugby Football Union has boasted consistently that the playing numbers are forever on the increase, a wonderfully healthy picture.

That figure alone ought to guarantee England's supremacy, certainly in conjunction with France, in this part of the world and perhaps in a world perspective on a pretty regular basis. Alas, figures released by governing bodies often hide another story.

Since the summer of 1995, when professionalism was brought into rugby union, England's record in the Five and then Six Nations Championship, the annual international tournament in this part of the world which surely offers us a proper and fair perspective of playing achievements, has been abysmal.

In those 15 seasons since rugby union went open, England have won just one Grand Slam. They did it in 2003, their World Cup winning year. But before and since, there has been a vacuum of success for English rugby. Several coaches, the likes of Jack Rowell, Clive Woodward, Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton and now Martin Johnson have tried to metamorphose that 65% of England qualified players in the Guinness Premiership into Grand Slam winners. Only one, Woodward, has managed it and that in just a single year.

Failure has become the hallmark of English rugby at the highest level, certainly in the first decade of the Six Nations Championship. Perhaps clubs like Saracens are in part to blame. The club which this coming weekend will contest the final of the Premiership at Twickenham against Leicester, has recruited mainly South African players to its ranks. Indeed, one of the first acts last year of the club's new South African owners was to tell fourteen English players that they would no longer be needed. Hardly an auspicious act in terms of English rugby's future.

Of course, the Saracens propaganda machine – much employed of late trying to explain away the increasing misdemeanours of its Rugby Director Brendan Venter – would tell you that the club is bringing through some exciting young English players. In two or three cases, that is true. But once the 2011 Rugby World Cup is over, I am willing to bet that Saracens will unveil more South African signings. All of whom will be deeply injurious to the prospects of the England national team.

It may well be that, as the regulations dictate, a specific number of English qualified players are included in the matchday squads of the Premiership clubs. But this is misleading. Many spend most of their matchday sitting on the bench and many more never get to play the match in one of the key positions on the field, roles which England need them to fulfil to become potential international players.

Part of the reason for this is that, under the regulations, only a very small number of players are classified as ‘foreign'. Just two from that category are allowed in a matchday squad. Yet plenty of others qualify, while still not being available for England. Herein lays the kernel of the problem.

And if you doubt there still is a problem, explain please why England, a country with so many playing numbers and all the vast riches of the Rugby Football Union, has won a paltry one Grand Slam since professionalism arrived, in a period when France has won five.

Explain, too, please why Martin Johnson's 44 man party to tour Australia and New Zealand next month contains not a single player whom you could genuinely classify as world class. Ben Foden/Delon Armitage, Chris Ashton/Ugo Monye, Mike Tindall/Matthew Tait, Olly Barkley, Toby Flood/Jonny Wilkinson (2010 vintage), Danny Care, Dylan Hartley/Lee Mears, Tom Payne/David Flatman/Dan Cole, Steve Borthwick/Tom Palmer, Simon Shaw/Nick Kennedy, Tom Croft/James Haskell, Lewis Moody/Tom Rees, Nick Easter.

The most damning fact of this entire piece is that not one of them would get into a current World XV, always the best arbiter of true talent. All are good players but none are currently ‘greats' of the world game. Why is that? Why have so many England players of recent years – the odd few like Wilkinson and Shaw excepted – been unable to take that further step to ascend the world stage?

Undeniably, there has to be some reason why a country of England's playing numbers and financial stature has so consistently under-performed, indeed failed, 2003 excepted. I suspect that the presence of so many overseas stars in such key roles in the Guinness Premiership teams is one of the primary causes.

I don't pretend it is the sole reason – failure at the top of the English game, i.e. within the RFU – has clearly played a part. But whatever the cause, England are stumbling towards the Rugby World Cup next year with diminishing hopes of achieving anything very much.