Premiership loses pulling power to overseas

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The Independent Online

The newly branded Aviva Premiership, which begins on Friday night with a northern arm-wrestle between Sale and Newcastle at Edgeley Park, is still a magnet for players from every corner of the union landscape. More than 90 full internationals from outside England, a third of them from the Pacific islands, have been listed by the 12 top-flight clubs in their initial squad declarations. But the figure shows a fall of close to 20 per cent on last year – a clear sign of the growing strength of rugby in mainland Europe.

Three-quarters of the Premiership fraternity have seen at least one player move to France – the financial powerhouse of the sport in the northern hemisphere – or Italy, where two new "super clubs" have been entered into the Magners League, which also begins this week. Significantly, there has also been a sharp drop in the number of capped New Zealanders playing in England– only half a dozen this term, as opposed to 14 at the start of last season. It seems the old country is no longer the automatic destination of choice for All Blacks on the make.

Samoa, the tiny South Seas nation that produces more rugby talent per head of population than anywhere on Earth, remains the biggest contributor to the Premiership's overseas legion: for the second successive season, it could field a complete international side drawn from the 12 leading English clubs. Behind them come the South Africans, Scotland and Wales. All are in double figures in terms of capped players earning their corn in England.

Senior Premiership figures expect the import numbers to drop again when Argentina, a valuable contributor to the domestic tournament's growth since its launch in 1997, join Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in an expanded southern hemisphere Test competition after next year's World Cup. Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, said he believed the timings of international windows would force most top Argentinian players to seek contracts with Super 15 franchises.

One of the most celebrated – and certainly the toughest – of the former All Blacks playing over here, the flanker Jerry Collins, is expected to declare himself fit for the Ospreys' opening Magners League match against Ulster on Friday night, only a week after resuming full training following operations on his knee and shoulder. "I'm paid to play rugby matches, and plenty of them," he explained, succinctly.

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