“Exceptional circumstances” defined clearly at last

Date published: July 27 2016

One of the under-appreciated amendments to the new eight-year agreement between the RFU and Premiership Rugby was a re-working of the rule regarding just which “exceptional circumstances” exactly are required for an overseas based player to be selected.

Attention was naturally going to be diverted to the figure agreed between both parties regarding funding – £220m to be exact – which will end up being more than double the number agreed when the last deal was made back in 2007.

More rest, better funding, and an agreement that seems to have pleased everybody. Now there’s a thing.

The “exceptional circumstances” debate too is dead. That hypothetical discussion over the last eight years has seen a host of top names attached to it, players based overseas whose form was surely too good to be ignored.

Steffon Armitage was the poster boy while he dominated European rugby in Toulon’s recent pomp, while Nick Abendanon flirted with it after his own run to being named Europe’s best player.

But the latest figure has been Sam Underhill, who actually has been an exception to the usual crop of French-based players earning impressive salaries remembered fondly from afar.

England’s recent success has changed the dynamic of the conversion from being about what the national side need in order to win, to who could possibly help them continue building for the future.

Underhill is the kind of player who falls into the latter category, doing enough to convince Jones he can be a Test back-row based on an admittedly low number of top level outings.

The 20-year-old, contracted by a side in Wales in the Ospreys, didn’t fit the “exceptional circumstances” criteria to be part of the squad to play Australia. Only a calamitous incident striking down the top five opensides in England might have put his name into the hat, yet the possibility of him being included was still discussed until the touring party was confirmed.

Now with the clause having been rewritten and re-defined, those discussions can stop taking place.

“When we wrote the first agreement it was always injury related, we just never wrote it in as specific as that,” said Mark McCafferty, the Premiership Rugby chief executive to reporters on Monday.

“We have clarified it only in the sense of writing what we had in mind eight years ago. If you get big injuries ahead of playing a tier-one country – maybe the next in line is inexperienced and almost to a point of safety issues.

“Under those circumstances that would definitely be exceptional and you might have to look elsewhere.”

RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie added: “We discussed it again with Eddie and we agreed with the exceptional circumstances clause and it is left where it is.

“I think everybody is clear and Eddie is very good at communicating it to players. We think it is a good clause and the right clause.”

Altering the wording of the clause earlier would have certainly saved both parties plenty of awkward questioning and frustration as to why those players absolutely couldn’t be selected, with those enquiries reaching their peak as England’s barren run without success continued.

The message now though is crystal clear. Move to play abroad and bar a positional epidemic, you really can say goodbye to international rugby.

by Ben Coles