A controversial plan to allow England’s Maro Itoje to play in France next season while still being available for the national team has sparked a major row between England’s leading clubs and the Rugby Football Union. Itoje has been offered a seven-figure sum to join the top French side Racing 92 on loan rather than turn out for relegated Saracens in the Championship but the idea has been vetoed by other Premiership club owners.
The England head coach, Eddie Jones, and other senior Twickenham officials had hoped Itoje’s proposed switch would be approved and help ensure one of England’s key players would be suitably primed for international duty. The clubs, however, have blocked the loan proposal, insisting it does not fit the “exceptional circumstances” clause which might theoretically allow a player to represent his country while based abroad.
When the matter was discussed at a recent meeting of the Professional Game Board, permission was duly refused. “Maro asked to go and play for Racing 92 on a one-year loan and the RFU and Eddie Jones were amenable to that, believing these were exceptional circumstances,” said a well-placed source. “It required approval from the representatives from Premiership Rugby [PRL], who make up the Professional Game Board with the RFU, and they have not given it.”
Section 4.34 of the Professional Game Agreement has recently been tightened and it is understood the “exceptional circumstances” clause now applies solely to injury-related scenarios. Only if there is a shortage of fit players in a specialist position is an English representative coach permitted to pick a player who is based overseas.
In the past there have been instances of players such as Brad Shields and James Haskell joining up with England despite playing for teams in New Zealand and Japan respectively but a major plank of the long-term deal between PRL and the RFU is that those wishing to be considered for Test selection must be based in England. “This goes against the agreement so we are definitely opposed to it,” said one club owner.
The outlook for Itoje and other leading Saracens players has clearly been complicated by the club’s demotion to the Championship following the salary cap breaches which led to them being fined £5.36m and ultimately being docked a total of 105 points to guarantee their relegation. Several players have already moved on elsewhere or agreed season-long loans with other sides but it had been understood that their highest-profile England stars would all be remaining with the club next season. That may yet prove the case but it is now clear the 25-year-old Itoje, for one, is not hugely thrilled by the prospect of a year in the second tier playing at Ampthill and Cornish Pirates, particularly with big money on offer for a short stint in Paris. The lure of European Champions Cup rugby is another obvious attraction, with Saracens not set to rejoin the European elite for at least another two seasons.
All this gives Jones a potentially serious headache, with the England management understandably keen for all their squad members to be playing at the highest possible level. With another Saracens and England lock, George Kruis, strongly linked with a move to Japan, Jones has already made clear that special arrangements may have to be made to ensure the players retain their top-level match fitness. “They’ve got to play some rugby, don’t they? It’s either playing Jersey or Japan,” said Jones last weekend, suggesting the Saracens contingent might also be summoned in for extra training. “If they’re good enough to be selected we’ll get them in the best condition they can be to play Test rugby.”
The counter-argument is that a less intense domestic programme might just help to prolong the careers of players such as Itoje, particularly with 10 England Tests and a British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa now looming next year.
If the lock were to move to France, however, he would soon discover the domestic season is even longer on the other side of the Channel. He would also be kissing goodbye to his current automatic international status, with other English clubs still apparently disinclined to do Saracens any favours.
Additional reporting by Gerard Meagher