VSeen through the narrow prism of current events, one name stands out from the England players list for the autumn series. A penny for the thoughts of poor Jack Willis as he seeks to balance playing at the highest level with being laid off at Wasps. As a result, he is also the rarest of unicorns: an England international mainly employed by his national union, not by his club.
Forget central contracts are a future possibility because they are already here. If the Rugby Football Union really wanted to be bold, they would step in and offer Willis – and possibly one or two of his Wasps teammates – a down payment until next year’s World Cup. Followed by other players once the eight-year professional playing agreement expires in 2024.
Let’s stop for a moment and contemplate the potential ripple effect.
After hanging around and missing their chance when the game turned professional in the 1990s, the RFU would regain control. The national head coach, as in Ireland, would have much more say in the workload of his players. The entire complexion of team announcements would also change. There would still be room for rising newcomers like, in this case, excellent Harlequins winger Cadan Murley, but the majority of players would be on annual or multi-year deals with the union.
Progress? If you’re a cash-strapped club forced to pay top dollar for internationals who are rarely available, that’s a double-edged sword. Your payroll shrinks, but you also lose your main marketing asset for even bigger chunks of the season. A more sustainable but less starred Premiership? It could still be like this.
When Eddie Jones was told the job of England head coach was about to get easier, there was absolutely no punching. There was a very simple reason for this: if anyone is going to benefit from a changing contractual landscape, it will be their successors.
“It has nothing to do with me, man,” he said, aware of comments about the matter from his chief executive, Bill Sweeney, on Sunday. “Over the next 12 months, as Bill has suggested, there may be changes and I can’t wait to see them from afar.”
The talented Willis, however, could theoretically be a guinea pig, assuming another club doesn’t sign him before the RFU pull out their wallet.
When fit, there is no doubt that the flanker ranks among the top 30 English players; as a breakdown impact specialist, it would also make sense for him, as will now be the case, to be as fresh as possible for big tournaments.
“He doesn’t train with his club, obviously, so we have some of our staff working with him to make sure he’s in the best physical condition,” Jones said.
Sure, but what about mental stress? Like everyone else at Wasps – and really good people like their enlightened director of rugby, Lee Blackett, deserve special sympathy – Willis wouldn’t be human if he didn’t feel completely drained at the moment. Jones, however, made it clear that, from a management perspective, moping around is not an option.
“Jack must continue. Everyone feels for Wasps – I feel for their players, their staff and their fans – but the good players make the most of it. He has a history of resilience and he’s a good, tough lad. There is an opportunity for him to be in his best physical condition.
The wider implications for English rugby of the Premiership’s continued collapse, even so, cannot be entirely ignored. First Worcester, now Wasps. A bumpy domestic backdrop and a wage freeze could also prompt more players to go overseas, putting pressure on the RFU’s policy that only Premiership-based players are eligible for England. If Maro Itoje, for example, can earn twice as much at Racing 92 as he does at home, the RFU may need to start considering overseas “sabbaticals” after the World Cup, such as the one Nova Scotia has to offer. ZELAND has just awarded Ardie Savea.
In the shorter term, however, Jones puts on a brave face. The majority of competitions, in his experience, experience growing pains at some point. “These cycles happen all the time in sports, so I wouldn’t be too depressed or upset about it.”
Perhaps, but for Wasps England hopefuls such as Joe Launchbury, Paolo Odogwu, Gabriel Oghre or (currently injured) Alfie Barbeary, that will be no real consolation.
Surely, too, the upheaval off the pitch won’t improve his team’s collective mood, with many of their best friends suddenly out of work? “I don’t know how much that resonates in players’ heads,” Jones said. “All the top players are quite determined. I’m sure they sometimes have conversations around double espressos but generally speaking I think they will focus on what they can do.
Henry Slade, Joe Marchant and Elliot Daly – to name just three omitted centers – will certainly feel seriously focused. England still have Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi, supported by Guy Porter and youngster Will Joseph, but Tuilagi and Slade feel like a powerful combination when fully fit and shooting.
The head coach had some words of consolation for Slade after his summer shoulder surgery – “He’s a good player, Henry, and there’s no doubt he’ll be back in the team. . we just want to see him have consistent form for his club” – but, ultimately, Jones sees squad sessions as a more reliable testing ground than club games. “You can never use the club game as a barometer of what the test match will be like. It’s fool’s gold, because it’s different.
Which, from the RFU’s point of view, brings us back to where we started. Central contracts, anyone?