With new changes to the number of foreign players allowed within the Top14, the inevitable exodus of Southern Hemisphere talent must not leak into the Premiership at risk of further hampering the production of English talent.
Changes are a comin'... to the Top14 anyway. With new rules passed in the French league ahead of the 2018/19 season, there will be a mass exodus of Southern Hemisphere talent leaving the top French league and heading for cash-rich shores. The Premiership will likely be a top option for many of these overseas players. Even 25-times-capped French international fullback Scott Spedding could be ejected from Clermont Auvergne despite owning a French passport.
Premiership coaches must do their utmost to avoid taking the easy route in filling squad spaces in favour of their own developing talent. As tempting as it may be, buying in players instead of relying on their Academy system will do more harm than good in the long run, for both club and country.
Opportunities for young English talent are slim. Premiership bosses are happier to play senior squad members out of position or make mid-season transfers instead of giving 20-year-olds the chance to prove themselves, depriving them of game time they desperately need to further their development. In the last few months, the apparent disappearance of proven hot talent in the England u20's set-up has baffled many. England's dominance is not being transferred from age grades to senior level, the lack of exposure these u20 stars get once they age out is the root cause of the issue.
Last season there were plenty of fingers pointed at the Top14 around the issue of so many non-French stars clogging up player pathways in key positions. While the issue was valid it is the reason we are seeing new rules passed in France. The Premiership is still currently lagging behind the Celtic nations and Super Rugby sides when it comes to developing their youngsters. The likes of Jacob Stockdale at Ulster, Curwin Bosch in South Africa and Damien McKenzie in New Zealand are fine examples of the success of an effective youth to senior development programme. England have 12 professional teams at the highest level to spread young debutants across, more than double any other nation. If anything, we should be leading the way, not lagging behind.
Stuart Townsend, Jack Maunder, Ciaran Knight, Gabriel Ibitoye, Ben Earl, Josh Bayliss, Cameron Redpath, Sam Moore; just some of the promising talent currently struggling for Premiership appearances because of overseas signings starting ahead of them. In a few occasions more than one.
Gloucester tighthead Ciaran Knight is currently stuck behind three props, two of which are high salary signings. Harlequins wing Gabriel Ibitoye is being snubbed in favour of Tim Visser and Alofa Alofa for squad spots. Sam Moore has to contend with Jono Ross, Josh Strauss and TJ Ioane at Sale. If not for early season injuries, even the marvellous Marcus Smith might have been stuck behind the South African pairing of Demetri Catrakilis and Tim Swiel.
There are endless examples throughout the league of multiple overseas stars keeping the next generation of English players out of match day squad.
Dean Richards has done great things for Newcastle Falcons, but with Juan Pablo Socino, Josh Matavesi, Sinoti Sinoti, Vereniki Goneva and Maxime Mermoz, it's been near impossible for the exciting group of backs currently in waiting up north to cut their teeth in the Premiership.
This being said, I am not calling for the Premiership to be filled with English players alone, far from it. The odd sprinkling of test stars near retirement or looking for new experiences in the Premiership is a wonderful thing. The extra excitement of seeing stars with different skillsets or famous names brings volumes to the league as a spectacle in itself, not to mention the benefits of their experience that youngsters can learn from. The issue arises when the men in charge of recruitment and team selection go overboard with buying their teams instead of building with what they have.
The current number of foreign players in the league is not an issue, the problem is Premiership bosses relying too heavily on them when there is an opportunity to expose the next generation to the highest level. However, if we see an influx of stars ejected from the Top14 into the Premiership, the Academy talent previously mentioned will be facing an even tougher task to break into the first team and fulfil their potential.
In an ideal world, we would have the number of overseas players we currently have in the Premiership alongside Academy players or recent graduates getting their fair share of starts and bench appearances. However, Directors of Rugby have proven time after time that the temptation to fill the void of retiring, injured or exiting players with ready made products flown in with lucrative contracts ready to be signed, is too great.
Wasps Director of Rugby Dai Young spoke to ESPN last week about how the salary cap is hurting Premiership clubs, specifically his side. However, Young has also filled his first team with some very expensive stars, both international and domestic. A backline filled with Dan Robson, Danny Cipriani, Christian Wade, Jimmy Gopperth, Elliot Daly, Kyle Eastmond, Juan de Jongh and Willie le Roux does not come cheaply and has cost Young's side depth. Give them an inch and they'll take a mile. It seems the benefit of ample cash available to Premiership bosses is not as positive as first signs suggest.
Had Young not decided to splash out on the likes of le Roux, Charles Piutau, Kurtley Beale and Frank Halai over the last few seasons, he may have been able to spend more on the development squad depth and Academy players. When he was still Wasps' number one fullback, Rob Miller was tearing it up in the Premiership, touted in a few circles for an England squad call-up. However, Young decided his team needed the skillset and star dust of Piutau, Beale and le Roux.
Now, I'm not calling for non-English players to be ejected from the Premiership for taking English jobs in UKIP-type fashion. We do, however, need to ensure the quota of overseas players does not rise any further and that Directors of Rugby and Head Coaches put their youth in the match day 23 in favour of their expensive assets from abroad.
Nothing frustrates me more than the claim that England are not producing talented players when there is such an issue with allowing the bright young things to take the next step in their career after the u20's. Briefly referring back to the Dai Young comments, cash is harming the Premiership, but only because there is too much of it. If Premiership sides weren't splashing the cash on expensive Southern Hemisphere assets, we would be seeing far more bench spots and starting jerseys filled with 20-year-old Academy players or recent graduates.
If the heads of each Premiership club decide to dig further yet into the pockets of their owners and fill first-team spots with these players exiting the French league, we can expect England's struggles to compete with the likes of Ireland and New Zealand when it comes to player development to continue.
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