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Top 14: England sevens captain Phillips signs for Stade Francais; Johnston joins Toulouse

07 May 2009

Census Johnston: Has signed
a two-year deal with Toulouse
Photo: Michael Paler

England sevens captain Ollie Phillips has signed to join French giants Stade Francais.

Phillips becomes the latest in an ever-growing list of British players heading across the Channel to play in Top 14 next season. He is also the fourth member of Newcastle Falcons to take French leave, following Jamie Noon (Brive), Tom May (Toulon) and the widely anticipated departure of Jonny Wilkinson (also to Toulon).

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Phillips, 26, has only made 20 Guinness Premiership starts for the Falcons since joining from Durham University, but director of rugby Steve Bates said the winger's attitude had always been "outstanding" and the he left with the club's best wishes.

"Unfortunately his appearances for us have been limited this season, but despite this he has always remained a positive presence around the camp, and I am sure he will seize his new chance in Paris with both hands," added Bates.

Stade Francais, Phillips' new club, have already snapped up England internationals James Haskell and Tom Palmer, as well as Scottish full-back Hugo Southwell.

Wilkinson?s ?700,000 per year deal with Toulon has yet to be officially announced, although both sides have confirmed that talks are underway. It is thought the player?s arrival will only be confirmed once Toulon have secured their Top 14 survival ? something that could be finalised this weekend when they travel to relegation rivals Dax.

Toulon?s incoming director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre has been overseeing a rigorous recruitment policy over the past two months and knows Premiership players well thanks to his time spent coaching at Sale Sharks and Gloucester.

Saracens veteran Kris Chesney has confirmed he will also be a Toulon player next season, together with Leinster?s Argentine fly-half Felipe Contepomi and Cardiff Blues? international centre Jamie Robinson.

Bristol captain Joe El Abd, Sale winger Rory Lamont and Munster prop Timmy Ryan have also signed for Toulon, along with Argentine Juan Martin Lobbe - another player following Saint-Andre away from Sale.

The lucrative financial rewards currently on offer in Top 14 are partly due to the strength of the euro against the pound, and also because there is currently no salary cap ? although that is set to change in the future.

The combination of these two factors ? together with the enhanced ?lifestyle? on offer ? is proving a tremendous lure to British-based players, born out by Brive's capture of England internationals Riki Flutey, Noon and possibly Bristol scrum-half Shaun Perry.

Flutey will be joining England colleague Andy Goode at Brive ? who already have the likes of Steve Thompson, Damien Browne, Alex Popham, Ben Johnstone and Barry Davies on their books.

Leicester Tigers? Erinle Ayoola, an England sevens international, and Gloucester's World Cup winning full-back Iain Balshaw are another duo to have signed to play in France season, joining Magnus Lund at Biarritz, while former England internationals Ollie Smith and Perry Freshwater remain at Montpellier and Perpignan respectively. The Catalans also have two Scots currently on their books ? Nathan Hines and Chris Cusiter, although the latter is returning to Glasgow at the end of the season.

The only English player returning from France to England at present is Brive?s Ben Cohen, but even he admitted that his decision was prompted by personal rather than professional reasons.

This wave of English players fleeing the Guinness Premiership in preference for Top 14 recently prompted the RFU warn (or threaten, depending on your perspective) players they could harm their international prospects by playing in France.

It has written to all of the players currently in its Elite Player Squad (EPS) and only last week Rob Andrew issued further confirmation that players departing for France risked future non-selection. The RFU is deeply unhappy at the ongoing exodus after agreeing a multi-million pound deal with Guinness Premiership clubs.

The essence of that agreement was that the clubs would release members of the EPS for England training squads, match preparation and various monitoring programmes, as well as limiting the number of games they would play in a season. The deal is binding for Premiership clubs, but not so for clubs based in France.

That is seriously worrying the head honchos at the RFU, who fear they may have effectively thrown good money ? and bundles of it ? down the drain if the player-drain to France continues.

Haskell?s departure is the one that worries them most because he is only 24, whereas most of the other signings have been players either in their late 20s or early 30s. But Haskell has been at pains recently to confirm that Stade Francais will facilitate all of his England commitments, while Brive CEO Simon Gillham said his club would always do likewise with its England internationals.

And it?s not just the British talent that is leaking away from the Guinness Premiership, with high-profile French internationals such as Sebastien Chabal and Benjamin Kayser also confirmed as heading back across the Channel this summer, while Julian Dupuy?s future at Leicester remains uncertain.

Saracens' Samoan prop Census Johnston has become the latest British-based player to sign up for Top 14 duty, after confirming a two-year deal with defending champions Stade Toulousain.

The 27-year-old, capped 20 times by Samoa, has previously played in France with Biarritz during the 2005/06 season.

He is the third player to join Stade Toulousain, following the earlier captures of Yann David (from Bourgoin), Louis Picamoles (from Montpellier) and Yoann Maestri (from Toulon).

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