England players stuck in the middle
October 14, 2010
Jonny Wilkinson is the subject of another player release row © Getty Images
As the autumn internationals loom there is another storm brewing between the England camp and French clubs - a worrying development for both sides.
Stade Francais want forwards Tom Palmer and James Haskell available for their crunch meeting with Clermont while Toulon are eyeing the services of Jonny Wilkinson for their fixture against Toulouse a week out from England's opening Test against the All Blacks. It's a familiar situation and it's also easy to sympathise with both sides, who naturally have their own interests at heart.
For Martin Johnson and England to release the players from a two-week camp is not ideal. There are of course times where a player has a slight strain and can't train for a couple of days but what England will say is that these guys will still be there for all the meetings, they'll still see what's going on. From a standpoint of making sure that players understand the consequences of taking the big money and playing out in France, they might want to kick up a bit of a fuss about it.
I also fully understand the point of view of the French clubs. They've signed these guys on a lot of money and it all comes down to what is in a player's contract. The problem that they have is that regardless of what is in their contract, if the boss says 'you're not going' then they're not going to endear themselves to the management by pointing out what's in their deal. It puts the player in a really difficult position where they have to feed all that through their agents and stay out of it. The last thing they want to do is fall out with the management structure at their club.
In recent seasons they've sorted out a long-standing problem in the Premiership with the club v country row thanks to the participation agreement. The problem with players plying their trade abroad is that there's no benefit to French clubs in England doing well. It's a really contentious issue and I think that Johnno has done the right thing. He has been firm and he has warned the players of the problems of going and playing in France. He's more than happy for them to go and do that, he'll come down and watch them, but they've got to make sure that they're available on the days that they need to be available.
If he starts pandering to the French clubs then he goes against what he said to the players. He's got to be firm and that may put him in a difficult situation of upsetting some people. The players know that if they're not at the camp, that will affect their selection.
Stade coach Michael Cheika suggested that Johnno would have dropped everything to play a big game for Leicester rather than remain in camp but times have changed since he played. Haskell and Palmer will want to be back with Stade Francais - the biggest thing that week for them will be their club's performance. You've got just as much loyalty, perhaps more, to you club as that is your week-in, week-out. To miss two big games just for training is very hard for a player to take. They would play every week if they could, 35-40 games a season, but we know that's not good for them and it's not good for performance.
You have to take those decisions away from the player and leave them with the various coaching staffs and medical teams. It's exactly the same for Johnno. For him, it's best that the players don't play in the build-up to the autumn internationals - especially due to the quality and the physicality of the teams coming over. They're going to play four Test matches against three of the most physical teams in world rugby and then Australia, who are going to run you about all over the place. Back-to-back that's a difficult set of games. I'm sure Johnno would want to play for Leicester but Clive Woodward, if he'd had his way, wouldn't have let him go back and he would have accepted that.
Last weekend's Heineken Cup games gave the England management a chance to see Wilkinson in action for Toulon against the Ospreys and I could see Jonny coming back in for the autumn series while Toby Flood is eased in after injury. The difficult thing for him is building up game-time and it's really important that he puts in a performance this weekend when Leicester take on the Scarlets. Johnno will be absolutely delighted that Wilkinson is in such good form and that's he's got two genuine options. If Flood can only last 50 minutes, he's got one of the world's greatest 10s to come on in the form of his life. It's not a headache for the management, it's a massive relief.
Flood could have a major impact for the Tigers on Saturday after they scraped home in Italy last time out. Taking nothing away from Treviso - they're a much better side that people give them credit for - Leicester should have gone there and won comfortably if they've got ambitions of being as good as they have been over the last few years. Just scraping past them thanks to an Alesana Tuilagi try will not have been good enough for Richard Cockerill. They've got a fantastic opportunity at home against the Scarlets this weekend and a chance to put it right.
The Scarlets were fantastic last weekend and generated a lot of attention but Perpignan were awful. They manufactured a couple of tries but they looked like the archetypal French side from the mid-90s that just rely on their home form. Adrien Plante - their winger - had a huge impact on the game; he did everything for them but made so many mistakes as well. If you look at his try, the whole team was walking back as though they couldn't give a toss about being there. The Scarlets fully deserved their win but Leicester will feel that if they perform to a good level then there won't be any repeat of last weekend's heroics from the Welsh region.
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN