Luke Cowan-Dickie runs with the ball for England

As concern over English rugby union’s finances has grown over the past year, several players have decided to earn a living abroad instead.

Premiership salaries have been squeezed after the cap was reduced by £1.4m to £5m from the 2021-22 season and, although it is set to return to its former level from 2024-25, players are seeking better pay elsewhere.

Rugby Football Union rules do not allow players based abroad to be selected for England – but an exception was made for former Wasps and Worcester players after those clubs folded.

The intention of the rule – which was introduced in 2011 – is to protect the quality of the English league by ensuring the best English players play in it, and give the RFU more control and better access to England or potential England players.

Head coach Steve Borthwick urged a rethink of the policy so that he could have his pick of all those qualified to play for England and said discussions on the matter were “ongoing”.

With the help of former England internationals Ugo Monye and Danny Care, here is a look at some of the key issues around selecting overseas players as well as some possible solutions.

Why are more players going abroad?

As Care points out on the Rugby Union Daily podcast, many Premiership clubs are in “dire straits” financially.

Wasps followed Worcester into administration in October 2022 and they are not the only clubs struggling to bounce back after Covid-19.

Money flooded into English rugby union following a home World Cup in 2015, but the landscape is different now.

“Sadly for a whole number of reasons, rugby players are going to have to accept that their market value has changed,” explains BBC rugby union correspondent Chris Jones.

“A rugby player might have to accept that where they were once a £200,000 player they are now a £100,000 player.”

As a result, several players have agreed moves to France that will likely mean avoiding taking a pay cut.

Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and back row Sam Simmonds are heading to Montpellier at the end of the season – after the World Cup – while Northampton lock David Ribbans will join Toulon and Harlequins centre Joe Marchant has set up a move to Stade Francais.

With the current England selection rules, this means they are putting their international careers on hold.

“They are having to make the call financially over playing for England,” Jones adds.

Why should the RFU change its rule?

Monye says that 10 years ago he would have been “totally against” players at overseas clubs representing England, but adds that “exceptional circumstances” with Covid-19 and the salary cap being reduced means a rethink is needed.

The RFU has already said that players like Jack Willis – who was forced to move to Toulouse after Wasps went into administration – can be picked for England given the circumstances of his move abroad.

Both Monye and Care believe the selection rule could be relaxed for a short-term period until English rugby gets back on its feet financially.

“I just don’t think our game at the moment can keep hold of all its England international players – we just don’t have the finances to do it,” Monye said.

“Steve Borthwick’s job is to select the very best players. With so many heading to France, he perhaps has lost some of that ability to do that.

“If it’s for two years until the salary cap goes back up then I think that would be a really good compromise.”

Another consideration for the RFU is whether to have a minimum cap rule.

After a dispute between Welsh players and rugby bosses, the minimum number of caps a player must have to be eligible for Wales selection when based abroad has been reduced from 60 to 25.

Care believes that, if the RFU rule does change, there should be a similar policy in place to keep the “best young players” in England.

However, Monye says it should be on a “case-by-case” basis. For example, Monye believes as one of England’s stars, full-back Freddie Steward would perhaps be given more leeway than young scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet, who has much more competition for his starting spot.

What would be the benefits and downsides for players?

Care says that given the injury risk in such a physical sport, some players might not think it is worth doing for a reduced salary.

Lawyers representing more than 185 former rugby union players have begun legal proceedings against governing bodies the Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby over brain damage suffered by their clients.

“I’ll always be an advocate that players should look after themselves because I have seen this game destroy a lot of people,” Care says.

“If you are a tight-head prop having to put your neck and back under that much pressure day in, day out and someone says they can only offer you 40% of what they have been… I don’t think it’s worth it to potentially have the life-changing issues that a lot of these big forwards will have when they stop playing.”

While playing in France offers financial benefits, it may also come with extra game-time during international windows.

Scotland star Finn Russell played for French side Racing 92 against Toulouse on Sunday, a week before he will represent his country in a Six Nations crunch match against Ireland.

In England, Premiership players have been able to remain in camp with the national side but Willis was not selected for their Six Nations opener after missing some training because he was still with Toulouse.

Monye says plays must “understand the risk involved in potentially going to France” because “you lose some of that protection”.

Source: BBC

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