Ex-England centre urges Red Rose to follow South Africa’s lead and has his say on Bulls decision

Alex Spink
Simon Halliday on England selection policy, South Africa's inclusion in European competitions and more.

Simon Halliday on England selection policy, South Africa's inclusion in European competitions and more.

England must learn from South Africa and allow its stars to play overseas AND pull on the Red Rose jersey if it is to win another Rugby World Cup.

That is the view of former England international and long-time boss of European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), Simon Halliday.

Halliday won a Grand Slam and played in a World Cup final before turning to rugby administration and serving nearly seven years as chairman of EPCR.

Exclusive interview

In an exclusive interview with Planet Rugby the Welsh-born ex-midfield partner of Will Carling gives his verdict on the addition of South African teams to what for so long was the European Cup.

He declares his position on whether the Bulls should be fined for sending a severely weakened team to its inevitable Champions Cup quarter-final fate at Northampton on Saturday night.

And he does not hold back in his assessment of English rugby’s policy of rendering ineligible players who choose to leave the Premiership in search of opportunities on foreign fields.

“I don’t agree with the policy,” Halliday says bluntly. “Look at South Africa. They flood their players all around the world. They all get different life experiences, come back and they’ve got leader after leader after leader on the pitch.

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“A lot of the leaders they’ve got don’t even get into the team. Andre Esterhuizen isn’t in the top six South African centres. He’d be a starter for England. Look how well he played for Harlequins against Bordeaux.

“English rugby should be up there with South Africa. We’ve got as much resource as they’ve got. Yet since England’s win in 2003 the Springboks have won three of the five World Cups including the last two.

“To become the best in the world again we need to utilise our entire resource. Without it I don’t think we will, personally.”

Exclusion zone

As things stand England can’t touch Jack Willis, Joe Marchant, Jack Nowell, Henry Arundell and David Ribbans – while Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Kyle Sinckler and Lewis Ludlam are bound for the same exclusion zone this summer.

Halliday is well versed in the argument that led to the policy operated by Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union not to pick players who go overseas in search of Euros and Yen.

But he says while he understands it was introduced “to keep the integrity and quality of the league… I think we’re now in a different place from when the policy was set-up as an England imperative.”

He cites Exeter, not withstanding Sunday’s tonking in Toulouse, as an example of a club that has lost a number of senior players to France and further afield yet actually experienced an upturn in fortune.

“The likes of Jack Nowell, Sam and Joe Simmonds moving on has made financial space for other younger players to come in,” he reasons. “Look what they’ve got now: Manny Feyi-Waboso, Greg Fisilau, Ethan Roots, Josh Hodge. Wow.”

The uproar over the Bulls’ team selection – and consequent 59-point drubbing at Franklin’s Gardens – returns Halliday to the subject of South Africa and the thorny topic of whether their teams have any business being in a competition long regarded as the jewel in the crown of European club rugby.

“I say again, if we’re ever going to beat them in a World Cup we need to know what South African rugby looks like,” he reasons.

Confidence-boosting win

“Playing against their players in big club matches offers valuable experience. Imagine how much confidence Northampton’s internationals will take from that win. Are they going to fear a South African rugby team now?

“Obviously it is not good when a team puts out a weakened team but do I believe South African sides should be involved? Yes, I do.”

Halliday’s preference is for Jake White’s Pretoria-based Bulls to escape punishment, and not just because numerous clubs have avoided sanction in the past for the same ‘offence’.

He cites the logistical challenges faced by South African franchises, nine airlines having been required to get the Bulls over at a cost to SA Rugby of £175,000.

“For me this season is all part of the teething process,” he adds. “I think this year we just have to suck it up.

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“Ambition is important, innovation is important. Look at how we pushed new boundaries when taking the Champions Cup final to Bilbao in 2018.

“We got shafted by the airlines, people had to camp in Biarritz and wherever, but it was the right thing to do and it lit a touch paper in Spain. Spanish rugby, on balance, has not looked back.

“Change is not easy, but it’s a part of life. When the Heineken Cup was in place the domestic leagues were very iffy – the Celtic League was a nothing tournament, English and French club rugby was pretty fragmented.

Needed to evolve

“The European competition, without doubt, had a clear position. What’s happened since is all the other tournaments have grown alongside it and you’ve no longer got that big gap. The Champions Cup has needed to evolve.”

It has done so by offering a haven to South Africa teams who previously battled debilitating travel schedules and time differences to play in Super Rugby with teams from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Japan.

There is an argument that giving their franchises access to the northern hemisphere’s showpiece club tournament has made the all-conquering Springboks an even tougher nut to crack in World Cups.

Halliday prefers to see it as opening a window into the ways of South African players and teams which can help European nations close the gap.

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