RFU chief brushes off England player drain to France: ‘They’re making a lifestyle choice’

Bill Sweeney, the Rugby Football Union chief executive/RFU chief brushes off England player drain to France: 'They're making a lifestyle choice'
Bill Sweeney, the Rugby Football Union chief executive - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

Bill Sweeney, the Rugby Football Union chief executive, has brushed off concerns over England’s talent drain to France, claiming players crossing the Channel are making “a lifestyle choice as much as anything else”.

Last month, Kyle Sinckler and Lewis Ludlam joined a growing exodus of homegrown players who are swapping the Premiership for the Top 14 when signing for Toulon.

The duo, who both featured for England at last year’s World Cup but were omitted from Steve Borthwick’s Six Nations squad this year, will join Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi in France next season, where a generous salary cap offers greater financial appeal. As England’s leading Test points-scorer and third most-capped men’s player, Farrell is expected to earn close to £1 million a season when he joins Racing 92.

Billy Vunipola is also understood to be on the verge of signing for Montpellier, while his brother, Mako, is also rumoured to be leaving. A host of other England internationals, including wing Henry Arundell, centre Joe Marchant, flanker Jack Willis and lock David Ribbans, already ply their club trade in France’s top division.

Amid delays over hybrid contracts and the new Professional Game Partnership, which is being negotiated between the RFU and Premiership clubs, Sweeney dismissed concerns that England is leaking talent.

“I don’t think the delay [in sorting the PGP] has had any impact on that,” he said. “Where we currently stand on the policy of only selecting players based in England stays as it is. If you actually look at the players we’ve got abroad, they probably made a decision in terms of, ‘Where’s my England career currently? Am I in contention for a place in those hybrid contracts? Am I in that core group of England players going forward?’

“If they’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not – and most of them have had conversations with Steve [Borthwick] anyway – it’s partly a lifestyle choice as much as anything else. Some of the players that have gone haven’t gone for more money.

“They’re coming to the end of their professional career, do they want to spend three or four years in France and have a different experience with family or maybe in some cases, maybe it is financially driven. If you look at the number of players going abroad, it doesn’t really impact our core group of England players quite so much.

“There’s maybe one or two that you think we’d rather have over here. Joe Marchant is rumoured to be coming back to the Premiership this year, so from our perspective, we’re okay with it.”

Joe Marchant playing for Stade Francais
Joe Marchant (right) is currently playing for Stade Francais - AFP/Pascal Guyot

Weeks after extraordinary plans emerged that the RFU considered selling Twickenham and buying half of Wembley, Sweeney indicated work to redevelop the national stadium would not begin for at least three years. “The stadium needs upgrading,” he said. “It has to be fit for purpose because it’s such an important revenue generator for us. We’re going through all the planning phases and various different options but you won’t see development or work on the stadium until about 2027.”

Sweeney, who was speaking at an event at North Bristol RFC marking 500 days until next year’s Women’s World Cup in England, also confirmed that the Red Roses would host world champions New Zealand in a standalone match at Twickenham this September.

The fixture will act as one of England’s warm-up matches for WXV – the Red Roses will also face France – as the RFU aims to build on its growing women’s fanbase ahead of what is tipped to be an “era-defining tournament”.

More than 42,000 tickets have already been sold for England’s Women’s Six Nations match against Ireland at Twickenham on April 20, which could surpass the 58,648 record attendance that watched the Red Roses’ Grand Slam victory over France at the home of English rugby last year.

“If you look at women’s sport, what’s happening with the Lionesses in football and you see it across cricket as well, women’s sport is here to stay and we need to make sure it grows as quickly as possible,” said Sweeney.

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