England trio off to France
February 17, 2009
Au revoir: England's James Haskell, Riki Flutey and Tom Palmer will be plying their trade in France's Top 14 from next season © Getty Images
The England internationals are all heading across the English Channel to France's Top 14 with Flutey joining Brive while Haskell and Palmer will make the move to their Parisian rivals, Stade Francais.
The loss of the 23-year-old Haskell could perhaps be seen as the most significant blow. A Wasps Academy graduate, he has been capped 14 times by England since making his debut during the 2007 Six Nations and has long been touted as key to the future of English rugby. Haskell's two-year deal with French giants Stade Francais is reportedly worth about £700,000.
New Zealand-born Flutey, 29, who has won six caps since qualifying on residency grounds last year, will join up with international team-mate Andy Goode and 2003 Rugby World Cup winners Ben Cohen and Steve Thompson in France.
"We are absolutely delighted to have signed him," Brive chief executive Simon Gillham told the Daily Mail after sealing a two-year deal understood to be worth almost £600,000. Flutey, who was named the Professional Rugby Players' Association player of the year last season, is in his second season with Wasps having previously enjoyed spells with London Irish and Hawke's Bay and the Hurricanes in New Zealand.
The 29-year-old Palmer, who has won 13 caps since making his international bow in 2001, is also a member of the England Elite Player squad although currently sidelined through injury.
The Wasps trio are the latest high-profile names to opt for a switch across the English Channel where France's leading clubs are not restricted by a salary cap. Premiership sides recently opted to freeze their playing budgets at £4 million for the next two seasons.
Following the triple swoop, Wasps' Executive Chairman Mark Rigby expressed his disquiet at the financial power wielded by France's leading clubs. "It does raise great concern that French clubs can now blow the English clubs away when it comes to salaries and it is clear that in financial terms we are no longer on a level playing field.
"There is a wider concern that the development of English rugby players will only be hampered as they move away from the Guinness Premiership, which stands as the best domestic league in the Northern Hemisphere, and regular head to head competition."
The trend of England players opting for a lucrative move to France may also be a concern for England manager Martin Johnson. The much-heralded agreement between English rugby's leading clubs and the Rugby Football Union offers Johnson control over the playing demands of those plying their trade in the Premiership but he has no such luxury when it comes to overseas-based players.
French-based players have to be released for Test matches but their Top 14 employers are under no obligation to make them available for additional England training weeks.
The RFU issued a statement in response to the news, saying, "The RFU will be considering the potential impact of the announcement by London Wasps today of three England Senior Elite Player Squad players signing for French clubs at the end of this season.
"It will be discussing internally and with Premier Rugby Ltd the possible long term effects on the English club game, the operation of the EPS programmes under the new eight-year RFU/PRL agreement and the effect of the PRL 'revenue smoothing' arrangements on our clubs' abilities to remain competitive in the player market. The policy matters involved will be discussed at the next scheduled RFU management board on Wednesday, February 25 and no further statement will be made until then."
London Wasps Director of Rugby, Ian McGeechan, said, "All three of these players have enjoyed great success as a part of the club, on both the European and domestic stage as well as the international arena. Since their arrival and through our Academy and development structure we have seen them flourish and that reiterates the great structures in place at the club. We wish Riki, James and Tom well in the next stage of their career."
In related news, Wasps are set confirm that they have retained the services of fly-half Danny Cipriani after the England international agreed a a one-year extension. He is one of 18 players coming off contract at the end of the season.
"We are very happy with how we are progressing through the negotiation period," added McGeechan. "Positive steps have been made with all of our players and we are now very close to securing our full contingent."