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News: Wasps stung by triple defection as Haskell, Palmer and Flutey head for France

17 February 2009

Paris bound: Wasps and
England star James Haskell
Photo: Michael Paler

French Top 14 sides have pulled off a triple transfer coup that could have serious ramifications for both English club rugby, and it's national team.

England internationals Riki Flutey, James Haskell and Tom Palmer - all from Guinness Premiership side London Wasps - have signed to play in France next season, with the threat of more to follow.

Haskell and Palmer have both agreed to join Paris club Stade Francais, with Flutey - such an influential figure for England at the weekend - joining the British exodus at Brive.

With World Cup hero Jonny Wilkinson also mulling over a lucrative deal to join Racing Metro '92 it looks like the cream of England's talent could be heading across the Channel next season.

That in itself would not be reason for alarm, as playing in the cosmopolitan Top 14 competition should broaden an individual's horizons, but the England management is clearly concerned as it is threatening to undo the 110m eight-year deal between the RFU and English clubs that was signed in the summer.

French clubs would still have to release players for internationals but they would be under no obligation to hand them over for squad training sessions - a vital element of the agreement. With current fly-half Andy Goode already plying his trade at Brive that could mean a significant number of first choice regulars being unavailable for training camps of the extended fortnight's build-up presently enjoyed by England coach Martin Johnson.

"It's an enormous worry for us," admitted RFU chairman Martyn Thomas. "The French clubs pose a major danger. If we were to get to a situation where there are half-a-dozen players based over in France, it would undermine the whole concept of the Elite Player Squad agreement. It's not something we envisaged when we sat down to thrash out the deal."

But the combination of the Euro's strength against the Pound and the lack of a salary cap for the cash-rich French clubs is clearly proving a potent combination when players - and their agents - sit down to consider their futures.

Haskell's two-year deal with Stade Francais is reportedly worth 700,000 - doubling the income he would have earned if he had stayed and signed a new contract with Wasps. The 23-year-old is seen as one of the brightest young English talents and his departure would be a blow not just to Wasps, but to the English game generally.

Inside centre Flutey, 29, has signed a two-year deal with Brive - currently sixth in Top 14 - but the club's English chief executive Simon Gillham said the British invasion wasn't solely down to finances.

"The strength of the Euro is a contributory factor, but those English players that have come to play in France have enjoyed the lifestyle here as well," he said.

New Zealand-born Flutey was last season's Professional Rugby Players' Association player of the year and already has six England caps to his name. He scored his maiden international try at the weekend against Wales and his capture is a significant signing for Brive.

Damien Hopley, chief executive of the Professional Rugby Players' Association, said the increased money on offer from French clubs was proving a huge draw and warned Flutey's departure would "undoubtedly" be the pre-cursor to more English players moving to Top 14. Especially now that Johnson has picked Goode for the England team, thus confirming that playing outside of the British Isles need not end your international career.

"It could have a fundamental impact on the fabric of the English game and the national team," he warned. "I still think that we'll retain a lot of our talent, but my worry is that we'll see a lot of our younger players potentially going overseas."

And it seems that the lure of such lavish financial rewards could also be a continuing problem for stars from New Zealand, with NZRU chief executive Steve Tew admitting that 'sabbatical' deals similar to the one which enabled Dan Carter to join Perpignan for six months are set to continue.

All Black fly-half Carter joined Perpignan mid-season but had his game time severely restricted after rupturing his Achilles against Stade Francais last month.

But, despite the injury set-back, Tew said the NZRU remained open-minded to future 'sabbatical' deals in order to retain the services of its star players.

"Dan could easily have injured himself preparing for a Crusaders campaign in a pre-season match here, or even playing soccer with his mates, which he does from time to time," said Tew.

"What's happened doesn't alter our thinking in that we need to approach the retention of our players and their long term well-being on a case by case basis, and from time to time do things a little differently... which some people won't like."

Tew added that he felt "99.9% sure" Carter would not have re-signed his contract with the NZRU if it had not allowed him to play in France.

"And I have known him since he was a schoolboy in Canterbury so it's not as though I am speaking from a distance," he added.

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