England future down to Armitage

Date published: April 9 2014

Steffon Armitage continues to impress hunting silverware with Toulon and will not return to England any time soon. But he should do.

The 28-year-old has five England caps and it can be argued has never fulfilled the Test rugby chapter of his career since being selected under Martin Johnson.

At the time, Armitage was turning in weekly eye-catching performances for London Irish as they initially made their way to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup and the final of the Aviva Premiership before fading away.

At Toulon however he has excelled. Named as the best foreign player in France following his first season, Armitage has since reached the Top 14 final on two occasions and was part of the side that lifted the Heineken Cup in Dublin last year.

That brings you up to the present day, where in a unique back-row triumvirate alongside Juan Smith and Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe he was worn the number eight on his back, but continued producing his now notorious limpet technique with such effect at the ruck area that he wins matches, not just penalties.

Shifting the breakdown boulder is at times impossible, as Leinster discovered last Sunday when Armitage was named Man of the Match and heavily contributed to the Irish giants conceding 18 turnovers. He has never been shy of carrying the ball either. Against Leinster he was outstanding.

Yet, England will continue to not select Armitage for any upcoming internationals, including the Rugby World Cup in 2015.

The problem doesn’t lie with the policy – England’s stance on selecting overseas players has been clear as day for many years now and players know the score.

Chase the Euro and you lose your Test spot, due to factors including date clashes, club release windows and the fact that you are not playing in the easily-monitored Premiership but out of sight. New Zealand and Australia hum the same tune, while South Africa have considered it and Wales cannot afford to.

The solution therefore isn’t to change tack. Truthfully, England are in better harmony and shape currently than they have been for many years. Armitage though would give them something more, something special.

Should he want to play Test rugby then it’s up to Armitage to make the decision, cut his ties with Toulon and return to England.

This is unlikely with Armitage having signed a three-year extension back in November to keep him at the Stade Félix Mayol until June 2017.

By then he will be 31 – 34 by the time the next Rugby World Cup takes place in Japan. Veteran players turning out at World Cups are commonplace, but there are no guarantees that Armitage will be as fit or in as much form as he is now in 2019, not to mention other players who may come through in that time.

Now, Armitage is in his prime. In an ideal world his contract situation would not have been sorted so much earlier in the season, a Premiership club would have swooped thanks to the increased TV revenue and salary cap and made Armitage eligible to be selected for England’s squad a whole season out from the World Cup.

New Zealand will arrive in 2015 with Richie McCaw and Sam Cane. Australia will have Michael Hooper, Liam Gill and hopefully David Pocock. The Springboks have Francois Louw and Marcell Coetzee. All are breakdown technicians of the highest quality.

England’s back-row is industrious and can dominate their opposition, but there is no player there like Armitage – or at least not playing on his level. Does there need to be? Based on the players selected by the world’s elite, yes.

Should Armitage add another Heineken Cup trophy and the elusive Top 14 title to his trophy cabinet by the end of this season, then what is there left for him to prove in France after three successful years both financially and in terms of silverware?

With England he would have the chance to achieve something even greater, to settle some unfinished business in Test rugby and even taste more success.

Currently based on his contract, that opportunity for Armitage is impossible unless Toulon receive serious compensation and Armitage finds a way out of his deal, if he even wants to. It’s a great shame.

by Ben Coles