Back: Overseas debate is an 'embarrassment'
Former England international Neil Back believes it is an embarrassment that the debate around the RFU’s overseas-selection rule is raging on so close to the start of the 2015 World Cup.
Head coach Stuart Lancaster is set to name his training squad for the tournament later this month, but the RFU’s divisive policy of not selecting players that ply their trade abroad will likely see European player of the year Nick Abendanon and his predecessor Steffon Armitage left out of a squad that could contain as many as 50 players.
But amid the increasing pressure of a home World Cup, the form shown by Armitage and Abendanon - who play for Toulon and Clermont respectively - has polarised opinion on the policy like never before.
As a member of England’s all-conquering 2003 side, Back knows what a World Cup winning squad looks like, and has seen team-mates Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio speak out in support of the rule.
However, Iain Balshaw - another member of that famous squad - has illustrated the divide the rule has created by stating his belief that England must pick the best players available to them as they approach a tournament that could define a generation.
To Back’s mind, though, the real problem is the amount of time that the issue has been allowed to fester for.
“We’ve known that this 2015 World Cup will be in the UK for a long time and we shouldn’t be talking about these players now,” he said.
“It should have been resolved two years ago, or last year. Not a couple of months before the World Cup.
“I find it a huge embarrassment for everyone involved that we’re even talking about it now because it should’ve been resolved a long, long time ago.”
The issue is increasingly threatening to overshadow England’s build up to the tournament, and Back is keenly aware that Lancaster is entering into a catch-22 situation.
“The only person that can make the decision is Stuart Lancaster. That’s whose view is the most important.”
“What Stuart has to decide is who the best players to win the World Cup are.
“If he picks them [Armitage and Abendanon] and England don’t win the World Cup, there’ll be uproar.
If he doesn’t pick them and we don’t win the World Cup there’ll be uproar because people will say he should have picked them.
“He’s got to name his squad of 31 and let that be the end of it.”If he picks them and England don’t win the World Cup, there’ll be uproar. If he doesn’t pick them and we don’t win the World Cup there’ll be uproar because people will say he should have picked them.”
Lancaster’s reign as head coach is likely to be defined by his side’s performance in the tournament, with Armitage’s and Abendanon’s involvement - or lack of - set to increase the scrutiny he will be placed under come September.
However, as Back points out, an early exit for England need not necessarily be judged as a failure, so long as Lancaster shows he can make the tough decisions one way or another.
“Sir Clive Woodward took over in ‘97 and our shared vision was to become the best team in the world, to become world champions and to consistently beat the best teams in the world.”
“Yet we went out in the quarter final [of the 1997 World Cup] against South Africa and conceded five drop goals.
“But that was one of a small amount of defeats over a period of time where we learnt from those defeats massively and never looked back.
“If we were to go out in the quarter-finals, say, then I don’t think that should automatically mean that he [Lancaster] is the wrong man for the job because quite clearly he’s done lots of things really well.
“But he has got to put his head above the parapet and make some real hard decisions and one of them will be picking the 31 that represent England.
“As long as they’re happy that’s all that matters.”
Back’s desire for a decision to be made is likely to be satiated somewhat by the imminent announcement of Lancaster’s training squad, but as he himself preempts, should England not win the tournament, it could become the issue that defines the World Cup.