Johnson: Stars in France knew risks

Martin Johnson does not believe the rules should be relaxed for players based in France
Martin Johnson does not believe the rules should be relaxed for players based in France

World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson thinks if Steffon Armitage or Nick Abendanon wanted to play for England in the 2015 tournament they should be playing club rugby in the Aviva Premiership.

England's 45-man training squad is to be announced on May 20 by Stuart Lancaster, who succeeded Johnson after England's ill-fated 2011 World Cup campaign.

France-based players Armitage and Abendanon are viewed as major contenders in some quarters, given their impressive European Champions Cup and Top 14 form this term.

England's stance, though, is only to pick overseas-based players in "exceptional circumstances", meaning there can be no places for Toulon back-row Armitage and Clermont Auvergne full-back Abendanon unless Lancaster decides they meet that criteria.

"Ultimately guys know the rules. If they want to come and play for England they'd be an England player," Prudential RideLondon 100 participant Johnson told Press Association Sport.

"Whether it's exceptional circumstances or not it doesn't matter.

"They knew the situation. If they wanted to put themselves in a situation to play for England - like all the guys in England are doing - then come over and play here. It's as simple as that."

Johnson was England team manager for three and a half years before resigning in November 2011 in ignominy after an embarrassing World Cup campaign in New Zealand, blighted by off-field issues.

Players playing abroad caused issues prior to the implementation of the rule, which was formalised by the Rugby Football Union in 2010 and came into effect after the 2011 World Cup.

"When I was doing the England job we had guys go before the rule was in there. It created issues, let's be honest," Johnson added.

"It created issues for us, it created a lot of issues for the players at times and was difficult.

"I can understand on a number of levels why the rule is there. Rightly or wrongly, disagree with it or not.

"If you're a player and you want to play for England you know what to do."

Johnson won 84 caps for England as a player and insisted desire to play had to be the first priority for any player and team.

"The number one criteria for any rugby player playing for any rugby team anywhere in the world is you desperately want to come and play," he added.

"If you desperately want to come and play, then you could've got yourself over here for this year to get yourself in a World Cup.

"I loved playing club rugby. Winning European Cups is fantastic and it's a big part of what you do, but ultimately if you're good enough you want to have the best opportunity to play for your country and play in the biggest games of all, which are Test matches and World Cups.

"If you don't get yourself in England, rightly or wrongly, you're not going to get the chance. If they really wanted to come and play, they'd be here doing it."

Asked if England should merely focus on picking the best players, Johnson said: "It comes back to that initial criteria - you want guys who are desperate to come and play.

"If you're desperate to come and play, then get yourself in England.

"There's any number of calls you could make on picking and not picking in 'exceptional circumstances'. They've got a rule in place, it's pretty clear, been there for quite a long time."

RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie declined to comment on the situation, but Lawrence Dallaglio, a team-mate of Johnson in the 2003 Rugby World Cup win, believes it is right that England select only from players based in England.

Dallaglio said at the Telegraph Business of Sport Conference: "I truly believe the best rugby players in this country should play in the country.

"The rules are very simple, they're very clear. I think they're the right rules and I don't think they should be broken.

"I don't honestly believe the best place for an English international rugby player is down in the south of France. I really don't.

"The players who went there went there because they weren't good enough to get in the England team.

"They are now playing at a level of rugby that is perhaps good enough - that depends what side you sit on."

Dallaglio believe Armitage should have approached Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal if he wanted to play for England.

A short-term move to Bath, which would have allowed the former London Irish back-row to play for England, collapsed last autumn.

"I am sure if he went to the owner of Toulon and said 'look, I am really passionate about playing for England, would you mind if you release me from my contract as I would like to join Bath, Northampton, Wasps, Harlequins or any of those clubs?'

"I am sure he would do that because he is a man who is driven by passion, whether for his club or his country."