Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage lifts lid on England lifeline

Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage is handed an England lifeline after a meeting with head coach Stuart Lancaster

England head coach Stuart Lancaster Photo: The Sport Review

Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage has been handed an England lifeline after a meeting with head coach Stuart Lancaster.

The 28-year-old openside has not played featured for England since the last of his five caps in 2009 and has ironically become an international exile since swapping Aviva Premiership club London Irish—nicknamed the Exiles—for the Côte d’Azur.

All I can do—and want to do—is keep my head down and play as well as I can

Steffon Armitage

The Rugby Football Union’s policy is not to select overseas players and doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon with Lancaster, and forwards coach Graham Rowntree, supporting it, but the man who has revitalised English rugby appears to be keeping his options open ahead of a home Rugby World Cup next year.

“Stuart said that the RFU rules are probably not going to change, but that the door is not wholly closed,” Armitage said.

“England want to put the best team out for the Rugby World Cup and they are just looking into the situation as to what any availability might be for camps and stuff.

“None of that is up to me. All I can do—and want to do—is keep my head down and play as well as I can.”

Armitage has been in destructive form for the reigning Heineken Cup champions, who have again reached the semi-finals and are three points clear at the summit of the Top14, typified by a man-of-the-match performance in the quarter-finals against Leinster earlier this month.

It prompted calls for the RFU to relax the policy, much in the way the South Africa Rugby Union had to—despite favouring local players—after a glut of star names headed to Japan and Europe.

Heyneke Meyer’s last 32-man South Africa squad for the autumn internationals contained 11 overseas players including scrum-halves Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) and Fourie du Preez (Suntory Sungoliath), wingers Bryan Habana (Toulon) and JP Pietersen (Panasonic Wild Knights) and outside-half Morne Steyn (Stade Français) – the major stumbling disadvantages being the union cannot control their availability for training camps, travelling schedules, game management and recovery.

The same RFU policy also affects Armitage’s versatile brother Delon, who swapped the backline of Irish for Toulon in 2012, and Toulouse-bound Leicester Tigers outside-half Toby Flood.

But there is an option to lift it in “exceptional circumstances” – thought to have been a way back in for Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson as much as a means to overcome an injury crisis.

The younger of the French-based Armitage brothers [22-year-old Guy made a permanent return to Irish from Toulon in 2013] signed a new three-year deal in November to remain with the collection of big-name colleagues at the Stade Mayol until 2017, but believes he has improved his game since leaving the Premiership.

“I’m definitely a better player than when I won my England caps,” he said.

“How could you not be, listening and learning from the likes of Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith, Bakkies Botha or Juan Martin Fernández Lobbe?

“You have to be on your toes every minute of every day here at Toulon… you don’t know who will be coming through that door next.”

Lancaster may have journeyed to the south of France a day after returning from the Easter holidays, and the likelihood is that, at best, the overseas players will be considered as standby for England’s summer tour of New Zealand only if there is a crisis, but Armitage is happy to be a better player and know he’s still in the selectors’ thoughts.

“Of course I’d love to play for England again,” he added. “I have never given up on that.
“I knew what the consequences were when I extended my contract, but I knew that I wanted to be the best player I could possibly be and that means staying here.
“At least I know now that I am not completely out of people’s minds.”

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