Interim rugby coach warns Wales' foreign legion
CARDIFF (AFP) –
Interim Wales head coach Rob Howley has told his country’s growing number of overseas-based players their international careers could suffer if they remain with foreign clubs.
Howley stunned many observers by leaving out British and Irish Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips from the Wales starting XV to play Argentina at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
Phillips, now with French club Bayonne is one of five players in the current Wales squad based in either France or England.
Club commitments meant none of the quintet were involved in Wales’ training camp in Poland last week, something Howley set great store by ahead of the autumn international series in Europe.
By contrast, Wales’s home-based players did travel to Spala thanks to a participation agreement signed by the four Welsh professional regional teams and the the Welsh Rugby Union.
Phillips, James Hook (Perpignan) and Paul James (Bath) are available for Argentina and all three are on the bench.
They can also play against Samoa and New Zealand, but not the autumn climax with Australia on December 1 because the Wallabies match falls outside the International Rugby Board’s window for Test matches, meaning clubs are not obliged to release players.
But the financial muscle of English and especially French clubs compared to their Welsh counterparts means the likes of Newport Gwent Dragons flanker Dan Lydiate and Cardiff centre Jamie Roberts could be on their way to pastures new.
“It is a very tough choice I have got to make, and one I haven’t made yet. It’s a tough one,” said Roberts, recalled after injury to face the Pumas.
“There are loads of factors to take into consideration.
“You just deal with it. It’s one of those things in rugby – the last year of your contract. Everyone goes through it, but you just get on with it.
“It is a tough decision I have to make, but one that whatever decision I make it will be the right one because it is what I want to do.”
Meanwhile Tavis Knoyle will start in Phillips’ place in the No 9 jersey, with Scarlets half-back partner Rhys Priestland outside him at stand-off.
“There was the amount of work Tavis got through last week, not only with the back-line but with the forwards as well, and generally being in and around the team,” Howley said.
“It is important for us that we have had good preparation, and Tavis as a half-back is an integral part of the team. He has worked his socks off and deserves to start.
“The dynamics of the team are important when you spend time together. It’s about those marginal gains that you get.
“When you go to France and England (to play), you take yourself out of that environment. It’s a difficult one because some of those players, in terms of experience, we might lose that.
“I suppose as coaches we have to take the hit because we want to be hugely supportive of our regional game. We want our supporters to watch the best Welsh players in the Welsh game.
“I’ve watched Mike several times with Bayonne, so these players are still under the microscope — it’s not out of sight, out of mind.
“The 13-day preparation period is critical for the success of Wales, and that is why the participation agreement is in place with the regions.”
Howley, in charge of Wales while Warren Gatland is seconded to the Lions to oversee next year’s tour of Australia, added: “We want our best players to stay in Wales.”