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Delon Armitage: Toulon will release us for England

Delon ArmitageDelon Armitage has described England’s refusal to pick France-based players as a “big opportunity missed”, insisting he and brother Steffon are available for all international training camps.

England have fought shy of picking the pair since they went to Toulon, citing the pair’s inability to secure requisite release dates and difficulties in keeping track of the pair’s fitness levels in the unforgiving Top 14.

But full-back Armitage, contracted to the Heineken Cup holders until 2016, dismisses this as “excuses” and claims an understanding he has with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal would fully meet England demands.

Armitage, who revealed he considered returning to London Irish before re-signing, told The Rugby Paper: “I’ll never say No to England and I think I’m playing the best rugby of my career over here, but it’s disappointing how England look at it.

“Fair play if England want to have their guys in the country, but if you’ve got guys playing alongside world-class players in France, like Steffon and I do, why wouldn’t you want to pick them? I certainly haven’t gone backwards from being here.

“From a development point of view, playing alongside guys week-in, week-out like Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana and Jonny Wilkinson – guys who know how to win World Cups – has been hugely beneficial.

“Speaking to Mourad before I renewed my contract, he said he’d never stop a player from going to internationals or doing what he needs to do. He gave me his word and that’s all I can ask.

“My brother’s one of the best No.7s in Europe and has still got a lot to offer England. If he had that chance, I’m sure Mourad would release him.

“Last year we heard how Toulon players were unfit, how we weren’t having enough game time or how the league in France wasn’t as good as the Premiership, but then you look at the Heineken Cup final and there were two French teams in it.

“People are always going to make excuses but I just think it’s wrong. I don’t know if Toby Flood’s coming over or not, but if he doesn’t get picked by England because of that it would be really sad because he’ll learn more by coming here.

“Wales pick their French players and they still keep winning the Six Nations. So if it can work for them, why can’t it work for the English?”

Armitage, 30, admits he was tempted to return to London, where his wife and two children still live.

He said: “It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I always enjoyed playing in the Premiership and there were things to consider like my family, playing with my friends again and the England thing.

“I had a few conversations with (Irish rugby director) Brian Smith and the opportunity was there and I’d have loved to have gone back. But, for rugby reasons, I think I’ve made the right decision.

“My wife and kids still live next door to Irish’s training ground so it would’ve been perfect to go back, but my wife loves coming out to France with the kids so we get the best of both worlds.”

With talk of Lions star Leigh Halfpenny and Wallaby James O’Connor joining Toulon, Armitage may soon be under pressure.

But he is unconcerned, saying: “That doesn’t worry me at all. Leigh’s a great player and he’d be another world-class guy to be around. I enjoy getting to know these guys and I’m enjoying learning off these guys.

“As for James O’Connor, according to the Press over here every single player in the world is coming to Toulon. What you read and what happens is often quite different but if it happens, that’s fine, it’ll make me work harder.”

Toulon continue their Heineken Cup defence this week and Armitage is desperate to see the tournament survive in its current form.

He added: “The Heineken Cup is the next best thing to international rugby and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to win one. For it to go would be devastating and I don’t think any other competition would come close.

“The Exeter people had a brilliant time here the other week. It’s the competition everyone wants to be playing in and their young lads got a chance to compete against world-class players, an experience it would be hard to replicate.

“Someone’s being greedy but I hope the people upstairs can sort it out and we can look forward to Heineken Cup rugby for years to come.”

NEALE HARVEY

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