Jack Willis offers the RFU a chance to explore the viability of central contracts

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By Creative Media News

When seen through the limited prism of current events, one name stands out on England’s fall series squad list. A penny for the thoughts of poor Jack Willis as he attempts to balance playing at the highest level with being made redundant by Wasps. Suddenly, he is also that rarest of unicorns: an English international who is employed mostly by his national union rather than his club.

Forget that central contracts are a future possibility, because they are, in fact, currently a reality. If the Rugby Football Union were truly courageous, it would offer Willis and possibly one or two of his Wasps teammates a retainer through the 2019 World Cup. When the eight-year professional game agreement expires in 2024, other players will take over.

Jack willis offers the rfu a chance to explore the viability of central contracts
Jack willis offers the rfu a chance to explore the viability of central contracts

Let’s examine the potential ripple effect for a moment.

The RFU would regain control after missing its opportunity when the game become professional in the 1990s due to inaction. As in Ireland, the national head coach would have much bigger control over his players’ workload.

The entire nature of squad announcements would shift. The majority of players would be on annual or multi-year contracts with the union, although there would still be room for up-and-coming players like the superb Harlequins winger Cadan Murley.

Progress? It is a double-edged sword if you are a cash-strapped club having to pay top bucks for infrequently available overseas players. Your payroll expense decreases, but you lose your most valuable marketing asset for longer stretches of the season. A Premier League that is more sustainable but less star-studded? That is still a possibility.

Eddie Jones did not punch the air in response to the suggestion that his position as England’s head coach would soon become simpler. There was a very straightforward explanation for this: if anyone will benefit from a shifting contractual landscape, it will be his successors.

“It has nothing to do with me, mate,” he added, knowing that his chief executive, Bill Sweeney, had made comments on the matter on Sunday. As Bill said, there may be changes in the next 12 months, and I look forward to observing them from a distance.

Willis could serve as a guinea pig, assuming another club does not sign him before the RFU pulls out its checkbook.

As a specialist in breakdown impacts, it makes sense for the flanker, who will now be as fresh as possible for key tournaments, to be among England’s top 30 or so players when healthy.

“He is not training with his club, so we have some of our staff working with him to ensure he is in the optimum physical shape,” Jones explained.

However, what about mental stress? Willis, like every other Wasps employee – and especially their enlightened rugby director Lee Blackett, who deserves special pity – would not be human if he did not feel utterly devastated right now. However, Jones has made it clear that from the perspective of management, moping is not an option.

“Jack needs to get to work. I feel for the Wasps’ players, coaching staff, and supporters, but good players make the most of the situation. He has a history of resiliency and is a nice, resilient child. He can be in peak physical shape.”

The bigger consequences of the Premiership’s ongoing implosion for English rugby, though, cannot be ignored. Worcester came first, then Wasps. A turbulent local environment and a wage freeze could also entice more players to relocate abroad, placing pressure on the RFU’s eligibility stance that only Premiership-based players are eligible for England.

If Maro Itoje, for example, can earn twice as much at Racing 92 as at home, the RFU may have to consider post-World Cup overseas “sabbaticals” similar to the one just granted to Ardie Savea by New Zealand.

Jones is putting on a brave face in the short term, however. In his experience, the majority of competitors face growing pains at some point. These cycles occur frequently in sports, so I wouldn’t be too depressed or upset.

Perhaps, but for Wasps’ England hopes such as Joe Launchbury, Paolo Odogwu, Gabriel Oghre, and (the now injured) Alfie Barbary, this will provide little solace.

Surely, too, the off-field turmoil will not improve the morale of his team, with so many of their closest friends suddenly out of work? Jones stated, “I’m not sure how much that affects the players’ minds.” “All of the best players are focused. I’m sure they have chats over double espressos on occasion, but I believe their primary concentration will be on what they can do.”

Henry Slade, Joe Marchant, and Elliot Daly, to mention a few missing centers, will undoubtedly feel quite focused. England still has Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi, as well as Guy Porter and young Will Joseph, but the combination of Tuilagi and Slade when they are completely healthy and blazing is a formidable one.

The head coach did offer some words of encouragement to Henry Slade after his shoulder surgery over the summer: “He’s a good player, and there’s no doubt he’ll be back in the squad… we just want to see him maintain a consistent level of play for his club”; however, Jones ultimately views squad sessions as a more reliable testing ground than club games. The club game is never a reliable indicator of what the Test match would be like. This is worthless because it is unique.”

Which, from an RFU standpoint, returns us to where we began. Central contracts, anyone?

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