Steffon Armitage is plotting a sensational switch of allegiance to France which could see him come back to haunt England at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
The Rugby Paper understands Toulon’s star back rower is exploring the possibility of representing Les Bleus after being alerted to a loophole in the IRB’s Olympic Sevens qualifying regulations which allows ‘capped’ players the opportunity to swap countries.
Under the terms of the IRB’s little-publicised exemption, introduced with Sevens in mind, any player who has not played for 18 months for one of the ‘capped’ teams in the nation they have already played for and holds a passport for another country, can represent that other country in next season’s Sevens World Series and then be eligible to play 15s for them as well.
An IRB spokesman confirmed: “The Regulation 8 exemption governing eligibility for the Rio Olympics was approved by the IRB in 2013 and applies with a stand down period of 18 months. Any player making the switch would then be tied to that country.”
Armitage, last capped by England in 2010, is a British passport holder but spent six years growing up in France and has been at Toulon for a further three since signing from London Irish in 2011, so the chances of gaining French citizenship would be strong.
Sources close to the player suggest Armitage has become disillusioned with England’s continuing refusal to pick him, despite the fact he was recently named European Player of the Year, and that playing for France would provide an attractive alternative.
Depending on how quickly citizenship could be secured, it might open up the possibility of the 28-year-old turning out for France as soon as the 2015 Six Nations – a turn of events that would prove highly embarrassing for England boss Stuart Lancaster.
Not only is Armitage considered to be one of the finest opensides in world rugby, he occupies a position which Lancaster admits is lacking depth. To see Armitage appearing at Twickenham in a blue shirt next year would be galling for his fans.
While England are sticking by their refusal to select overseas players, the possibility of Armitage switching allegiance is certain to test that resolve.
South Africa hooker Schalk Brits, who suffered at the hands of Armitage during last month’s Heineken Cup final, is mystified by England’s approach.
Brits, one of nine overseas Boks recently selected, told The Rugby Paper: “People go to other countries to achieve different things.
“For me it was about growing as a rugby player and Steffon has gone through something similar at Toulon.
“England’s policy is not to pick overseas players but Steffon’s had an amazing season and he can add a lot to the England side.
“If you want to win a World Cup, you need your best guys.
“South Africa has continued to pick overseas guys and it’s the right thing to do.
“You must let the best players play each other in the World Cup.”