England: No change in eligibility rules expected as Test players ‘should be playing in the Premiership’

Jared Wright
Steve Borthwick will not be able to select players based abroad this season or next as England will keep current restrictions, according to Premiership Rugby chief executive Simon Massie-Taylor. england rugby eligibility rules

Steve Borthwick will not be able to select players based abroad this season or next as England will keep current restrictions, according to Premiership Rugby chief executive Simon Massie-Taylor.

The Premiership CEO claims that there is no desire among the clubs and RFU to relax the current eligibility rules despite several top talents departing English shores after the Rugby World Cup.

No change in England’s eligibility rules

The current eligibility rules are designed to keep the country’s top stars in the Premiership and give the England head coach greater control over his players. However, there is an ‘exceptional circumstances’ clause which saw Toulouse’s Jack Willis picked during the Six Nations.

Willis is the lone example of the clause since 2011, with dispensation only granted due to Wasps’ financial collapse.

This means that from next season, Willis will be ineligible for selection as he is set to re-sign for the Top 14 club. The flanker recently called for a change in the rules.

Borthwick wants the overseas policy eased to pick the “best players available”. A good chunk of his expected Rugby World Cup squad will head to the Top 14 next season, including Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds, David Ribbans and Joe Marchant.

International players should be playing in the Premiership

However, the prospect of relaxing the eligibility rules has been ruled out as talks continue over the new Professional Game Agreement that comes into effect in July 2024.

“Having our English players playing within the Premiership is important for England and for the Premiership,” Massie-Taylor told the PA news agency at an event for Funding Circle.

“From the RFU’s, ours and even the players’ perspective, we all see the importance of England internationals playing domestically.

“Provisions exist for exceptional circumstances that will probably still carry on going forward, but we all agree England international players should be playing in the Premiership.

“There will always be an international market for players, and players have that choice to go abroad and not play for England.”

Central contracts

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall stated on Wednesday that central contracts should be “top of the agenda” at the PGA while also tabling the idea of a “salary share”.

“It should be top of the agenda, central contracts,” McCall said.

“If there is an opportunity to do something a bit differently and for club and country to work very closely together over a particular player. 

“Maybe share his salary? We all know the top international players will be unavailable for half your programme anyway.

“Probably down the years, it has been unfair on the club to pay that player his full salary if that’s the case.

“You need to understand as well that as soon as the RFU start to contribute towards someone’s salary, then you lose a bit of control over that player, but I think that’s the right thing to do.”

McCall added: “It is a potential solution when you see how well the Irish system works. Central contracts work very well for both provinces and Ireland.

Success for England and English clubs

“It is a bit different here. There are more clubs, but I am sure a sensible, reasonable solution to it can be arrived at if there’s will on both sides to allow that to happen.”

Massie-Taylor says that the PGA negotiations are being driven by a “desire to see a winning England and winning English clubs” and added that middle ground is being sought to mitigate the risk for the Premiership teams after Wasps’ and Worcester’s collapse.

“We have an existing system in place in terms of access, and historically that’s worked pretty well. We are discussing how that can be improved,” he said.

“Alongside that – and I think this is perhaps what Mark is alluding to – is generally around financial risk because we have a system where the principle financial burden of the system falls on the people who are funding the rugby clubs.

“That’s clearly in quite a fragile state at the moment, so we need to have a discussion around sharing more risk and around England stars as well.

Striking a balance

“What Mark is describing I probably wouldn’t define as central contracting; it’s more shared contracting. It’s been discussed – those types of things are always on the table.

“Clubs invest into these players from a very early age, bringing them through the academy system and developing them to the point of England selection.

“Rightfully, clubs need to be able to reap the benefits of developing England players, and you also want to properly incentivise clubs to develop and pick England players. You don’t want to make it a disincentive to develop a top star.

“There are certain things in place already, and that’s another obvious thing to look at – to make sure that Saracens still want England players in their team while recognising they’re not going to be there the whole time.

“When we were doing the rounds with clubs last summer to talk about the future PGA, central contracts were mooted, but I don’t necessarily see them as a shared belief amongst other clubs as well. There’s a balance to be struck here.” 

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