Sir Clive Woodward blasts ‘narrow-minded’ RFU over ‘culture of fear’ with overseas policy

Colin Newboult
Sir Clive Woodward alongside current RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney.

Sir Clive Woodward alongside current RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney.

Former England head coach Sir Clive Woodward has hit out at the Rugby Football Union and their CEO Bill Sweeney over their overseas policy.

Following the loss of several players to France, including Jack Willis and Henry Arundell, a debate has been raised over the RFU’s stance.

Owen Farrell will also leave the Premiership at the end of the campaign after signing for Racing 92, thus ruling himself out of international selection.

Despite the loss of some big individuals abroad, Sweeney insists that there will be no alteration to their policy.

CEO’s view

“Where we currently stand on the policy of only selecting players based in England stays as it is,” the RFU’s chief executive said on Tuesday.

“If you actually look at the players we’ve got abroad, they probably made a decision in terms of ‘where’s my England career currently? Am I in contention for a place in those hybrid contracts? Am I in that core group of England players going forward?’

“We think there is a performance advantage to having those players based in your own country.

“New Zealand do it – I know there has been coverage about whether or not they should do it going forward – France do it, Ireland do it. The obvious outlier is South Africa, they don’t do it and they’ve won the past two World Cups.

“So the way things currently stand, we are sticking to that overseas rule.”

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Woodward has duly responded, reiterating his desire to see the overseas policy changed and describing Sweeney’s “lack of vision” as “very predictable but nonetheless disappointing and typically defensive.”

The Rugby World Cup winner wants it removed completely, which would allow Red Rose head coach Steve Borthwick to pick English-qualified players wherever they are based in the world.

‘Archaic ruling’

“I’ve long been of the view it is an archaic ruling which doesn’t work in the society we all live in today. I look at it through a very blunt lens,” he wrote in his Daily Mail column.

“Does the overseas rule make England more competitive? Or, as an Olympic rowing team would say: ‘Does it make the boat go faster?’ For me, the answer is an emphatic no.

“I cannot imagine not being able to select a single player I wanted. If someone had told me I couldn’t have picked Jason Robinson because he played in France, I’d have gone mad!

“As the man in charge of the country’s men’s team, Borthwick should be able to pick the best side he can without exception.”

Woodward also believes that it “devalues the international game and the England shirt immensely”, before adding: “If you’re George Ford or Marcus Smith, you want to know you’re being picked as England fly-half because you’re the best in your position and not because Owen Farrell isn’t available due to him signing for Racing 92.”

RFU’s ‘narrow-minded’ approach

The ex-England head coach hoped that the conclusion of the 2024 Six Nations would signal a change in the RFU’s thinking, but that has evidently not happened.

Woodward believes that moving to France can improve individuals but, with this policy denying a few of them that opportunity due to the threat of missing out on Test selection, the 68-year-old thinks that the governing body is holding English rugby back.

“The RFU should be encouraging and working with English clubs to compete with those in France, not isolating them and encouraging a narrow-minded culture of fear and protectionism,” he wrote.

“There must be an acceptance that moving to France can make players better and therefore improve the national team. Even someone as good as Jonny Wilkinson went to another level when he left Newcastle for Toulon.

“On the back of such a promising end to the Six Nations, an announcement that the overseas rule was being scrapped with immediate effect would have woken the rugby world up and let them know England mean business. The fact the status quo is being maintained is a huge, missed opportunity.”

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