Steve Borthwick has urged the Rugby Football Union (RFU) to relax the rule that bans England players based abroad from representing their country – after Wales slashed their 60-cap threshold to 25.
Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds are among a batch of England stars who will join clubs in the French Top 14 after this year’s World Cup, to earn more cash than in the Premiership, with Japan as another possible destination.
Jack Willis is currently with Toulouse and still playing for England, but only under a temporary RFU dispensation after his former club Wasps went bust.
Borthwick, the England head coach, said on Thursday: “Currently there is the start of negotiations for a new Professional Game Agreement, from 2024. Everyone knows it’s been a challenging situation for rugby in this part of the world.
“We’ve seen two clubs no longer playing Premiership rugby this season. So we need to make sure those things are right.
“What we have faced here is some extreme circumstances. There are the discussions ongoing about what this means, and the implications. For the players, it’s their livelihood and careers. From my point of view, I want to make sure we are able to select the greatest number of players possible; the best players possible.
“Now, those discussions are only at their starting point and clearly my focus is here in the Six Nations. But do I want to make sure we have an England team where we have the best players available to us? Yes.”
George: Wales could feel ‘it’s us against the world’
England hooker Jamie George believes Wales may benefit from a backs-to-the wall mentality generated by their ultimately abortive threats of a strike ahead of Saturday’s Six Nations clash in Cardiff, likening it to Saracens coping with their salary-cap punishment in the 2019-20 season.
“I have been in a similar situation,” said George, who has a Saracens club-mate, Nick Tompkins, in the Welsh squad, and has played alongside several of the Wales team on Lions tours.
“You kind of love it when things aren’t going so well off the field and there is a lot of noise. It is ‘us against the world, let’s go out and prove some people wrong’ – and I am sure those are the messages people like Alun Wyn [Jones] are giving out. We are expecting the best possible Wales team, and one that is driven to win.”
England’s head coach Steve Borthwick expressed “whole-hearted sympathy” for the Wales players, saying “no player, no professional athlete should have to deal with that level of uncertainty and anxiety. Nobody should.”
And Borthwick admitted English rugby has problems of its own, with clubs going bust and the same wrangling as in Wales over a professional game agreement for the next few years.
George said: “I’m glad they [the Wales players] have stood up for themselves. It’s glaringly obvious that the Premiership isn’t in a place that we want it to be in, either. What’s amazing is that the RFU are really receptive.
“Last week I wasn’t able to attend but there was a conversation about that kind of thing with senior members of the RFU. The players need to be involved. You never want it to get to the point where strikes are on the cards, because that means there’s confrontation, and it’s one side against the other.
“I think back to the [Saracens v] Racing game at home, we had just been officially relegated after all the rubbish that had gone on and it is probably one of favourite rugby memories.
“We went down to 14 men, we somehow beat Racing at home and if it was the only thing I could have about rugby at home it would be that picture because it means a lot. I just hope Nick Tompkins doesn’t tell [Wales] too much about the secrets of how we did it.”
Borthwick said Wales were using experience to cope with the disruption, and he has reverted to the tried and rested, too, with Anthony Watson and Courtney Lawes restored as starter on the wing and replacement forward respectively, following each man’s battles with multiple injuries.
Lawes, the some-time England captain last year, has played 170 minutes of rugby this season, and none for five weeks. Ollie Hassell-Collins had started England’s Six Nations openers against Scotland and Italy on the left wing, and is now injured, but Borthwick might have favoured Watson anyway. Borthwick signed the back-three veteran of 57 England and Lions Tests to Leicester last summer.
“From the day he walked in [at Leicester] he was magnificent,” said Borthwick. “The way he prepared himself, the way he helped the younger players, how much he cares as a professional.”
Borthwick said the England players are free to discuss off-field matters if they wish. “It’s always important to understand what the players are feeling. They’re adults, and that’s the kind of relationship I want to have with my players. We all know the challenge we have has been enormous, as we try to rebuild this England team from where it was.”