Probyn column: Overseas players are both cheaper and always on call

Chris Boyd, a New Zealander, has questioned why England seem to have an obsession with employing so many overseas coaches. The Northampton director of rugby could just as easily have asked why there are also so many overseas players, particularly considering that England have the largest player base of the world game.

The answer is, it is much cheaper than buying players from home in most cases and they also bring something different to the table. If you are an owner, your expectations are it will give your squad an advantage over those who have learned the game here.

Add in the shortcut factor where buying an experienced player means they hit the ground running so there’s no need for the protracted period of investment in their development and the attractions are obvious. 

With coaches, a perfect example is Eddie Jones, who is the first foreigner to take the helm of the national team in England. Although England, despite being the biggest and best financially supported union, have had a pretty average run when it comes to success with the Rugby World Cup, having reached just four finals – 1991, 2003, 2007 and 2019 – in nine competitions while only winning once.

Until 2019, 2003 was the only time England had a coach who had previous experience of taking a squad to what the World Cup, a unique competition in the game of rugby.

Geoff Cooke led England to the ’91 final but was replaced before the ’95 Cup. Then Brian Ashton was bought in as a late replacement for Andy Robinson and led the team to the final in 2007 but was then replaced shortly after the final.

During a World Cup you play against teams of varying standard, some Tier 1 nations, some Tier 2 nations with a format that virtually guarantees that the final has two Tier 1 nations and a foundation union winner.

Clive Woodward led England to the 1999 Cup with the team knocked out at the quarter final stage, but was kept in the job to lead England to the 2003 Cup and repaid the RFU’s faith in him by winning the trophy.

After Stuart Lancaster led England to a pool stage defeat in 2015, which he actually predicted given the inexperience and number of injuries his squad suffered in the years leading up to the Cup, the RFU sacked him.

The RFU’s lack of a long-term view has meant that no coach has been identified in a succession planning style to ensure some level of continuity at any time, with random selections seeming to be the chosen model used by the RFU in the search for a new England coach.

With no obvious candidate, it led the RFU finally to decide that England needed one who had World Cup experience and was still coaching and available, which effectively meant an overseas coach for the first time.

England head coach Eddie Jones
Instant impact: Eddie Jones pictured at the Stade de France where England claimed the 2016 Six Nations Grand Slam. Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Once the option of an overseas coach was accepted, Jones was the perfect fit for England having coached the Australian side that England beat in 2003, assisted South Africa in their 2007 win and led Japan in 2015. He had also worked as a consultant in 2006 before becoming coach at Saracens between 2007/09.

When Jones took the job he was contracted to take England to just the 2019 Cup while mentoring an English coach within his coaching group who would replace him in 2021, but as the possible candidates, Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard, have both taken jobs with the Premiership, Jones’ contract now runs to the 2023 Cup in France.

Overseas players are a different matter, with the vast majority opting for a job with the Premiership in England or Top 14 in France because, even as a journeyman player, they can earn more than in their home country.

As a marquee player, a position reserved for the stars of the game, they can earn serious amounts of money that they couldn’t get anywhere else and supply them with the finance to continue their lifestyle when they are forced to retire through age or injury.

For the clubs it can be a ‘win win’ situation as they get a star name to help attract more fans to their games while hopefully helping the club win trophies.

Clubs also have the benefit of keeping overseas journeymen players for all games of the season with no call to play an international match disrupting the club’s efforts to secure their spot in the Premiership.

Overseas marquee players can be current internationals and play for their county if they choose but they are restricted to only playing in the games that World Rugby stipulate in the international calendar and so cannot play in any extra international games added by the unions. 

All in all, the choice for overseas players and coaches is simple logic with clubs buying a finished article with most restricted to just the club games, without the fear for club management that they will be suddenly whisked away by the siren call of international fame and fortune.

JEFF PROBYN

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