The fallout from Rhys Webb and Simon Zebo’s moves to France show that the WRU and IRFU must open an exception in their selection policy for long-serving regional and provincial players.
After his decision to sign a three-year deal with Toulon, Ospreys and Wales star Rhys Webb will be unavailable for Wales from next season onwards. This is a result of the WRU’s new Senior Players Selection Policy, which means that any player with less than 60 caps is ineligible for selection.
This means that the 28-year-old who has only 28 caps will miss the 2019 World Cup and Wales will be shorn of one of their key men in Japan.
While a new national selection policy was needed to keep Wales’ biggest talents at home following the failure of ‘Gatland’s Law’. The policy should now deter players from leaving and will strengthen the regional game and thus the national team.
However, there should be an exception to the policy which allows long-serving regional players even if they fall under the 60 cap threshold, to still be available for selection.
Webb has given his home region ten years of loyal service since his Ospreys bow in 2007 and has made over 140 appearances for the Swansea-based region. Having suffered a couple of serious injuries during his career and the fact that players have a short career, one can understand why the father of two wants to secure his family’s financial future by making the lucrative move to France.
Surely a decade of unstinting service to Welsh rugby should mean that Webb should be given some leeway.
To my mind, any player who has given seven years or more service to their region should still be available for national selection even if they don’t have the required 60 caps. By inserting this exception into the selection policy, the WRU can ensure they keep their best players in Wales for a good amount of time which will strengthen regional rugby and the national team.
This will also ensure Wales’ best players, even if they decide to leave the principality to secure their financial future, are available for selection for the national team.
Wales simply do not have the player depth to be able to exclude player such as the ilk of Webb.
While in Ireland, Simon Zebo’s decision to move to France next season has brought immediate repercussions for the versatile 27-year-old back. Like Webb, the Cork-born star has decided to head to France, with his exact destination unknown as yet, in order to secure his young family’s future.
But as a result of the IRFU’s selection policy which prevents any player plying his trade outside Ireland from being selected for international duty, the 35 times-capped Munsterman is now in the international wilderness and will miss the next World Cup and may even never pull on an Irish jersey again.
The IRFU have previously made an exception to this rule in the case of the talismanic Jonathan Sexton, when they continued to select the indispensable star during his two-year spell in France with Racing 92.
But since then no exception has been made, with the likes of former Leinster pivot Ian Madigan- currently at Bristol, vastly-experienced Racing 92 lock Donnacha Ryan and Wasps prop Marty Moore, finding themselves surplus to requirements for the national team after leaving Ireland.
While only Madigan out of the three has pulled on the jersey again after leaving Ireland last year. But his three appearances off the bench during Ireland’s tour to South Africa last year were only because Jonathan Sexton was forced to pull out of the tour, with 28-year-old Madigan having originally being left out of the squad after announcing his decision to move to Top 14 side Bordeaux Bégles. Since then he has failed to make any of Joe Schmidt’s squads.
Going back to Zebo, one of Ireland’s most gifted backs who possesses real X-factor, surely something must be done to accommodate him. Munster’s record try scorer with 56 scores, he has125 appearances for his province since his debut in 2010. Having given Irish rugby seven years of loyal service, an exception should be made for him which would allow him to continue to play international rugby while playing abroad.
Despite the fact that exciting young talents such as Joey Carbery, Jacob Stockdale and Adam Byrne, are coming through, the loss of Zebo will undoubtedly hurt the Irish national team.
Like in Wales, allowing any player who has given seven years of service to their province before moving abroad, to continue to be available for selection for the national team, would benefit Irish rugby and would ensure that talents like Zebo could still be picked.
It would also allow the likes of 47 times-capped Donnacha Ryan, who spent 14 seasons at Munster before his move to Paris this season, and Ian Madigan, who racked up 147 appearances for Leinster during a seven-year period, to also be selected.
Inserting this kind of exception into their selection policy would bring long-term benefits to the game in Ireland.
One thing is for sure, the cash-laden French clubs as well as clubs in England, are going to continue to try and lure Wales and Ireland’s top players away and with the huge sums of money being offered especially in France, it is going to become more and more difficult for players to say no.
By banishing top quality players who have given sterling service to their regions and provinces, the WRU and IRFU are making a rod for their own backs, with the result being that their national teams will suffer.
Hefin Jones, Pundit Arena