Exiled forward delighted as coach Stuart Lancaster visits him to check on availability for international training camps.
Steffon Armitage greeted news that he is back on England’s radar by declaring that he would “love to play” for his country again, after Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, paid a visit to Toulon on Monday to clarify the player’s future availability.
The Toulon back-row forward has been a star turn in a team of galácticos, many of whom have far more international caps than the 28-year-old former London Irish player has managed. Armitage won his five caps in 2009, and took the decision to exile himself to the south of France two years later after his international career stalled.
The move to France has paid off on many fronts, with Armitage being voted man of the match on a regular basis in recent weeks and he is sure to play a prominent role in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster in Marseille on Sunday.
Even though he signed a three-year contract extension in November, a deal that appeared to put him into conflict with Rugby Football Union policy of not selecting players outside of the English game, Armitage has been given renewed hope by the visit of Lancaster. “Stuart said that the RFU rules are probably not going to change but that the door is not wholly closed,” said Steffon, whose full-back brother Delon was also in the talks.
“England want to put the best team out for the Rugby World Cup and they are just looking into the situation as to what any availability might be for camps and stuff. None of that is up to me. All I can do, and want to do, is keep my head down and play as well as I can.
“Of course I’d love to play for England again. I have never given up on that. I knew what the consequences were when I extended my contract but I knew that I wanted to be the best player I could possibly be and that means staying here. At least I know now that I am not completely out of people’s minds.”
Lancaster supports the RFU policy and is aware that there could be a potential post-World Cup exodus of leading English talent to France if those restrictions were eased. That deterrent policy will stay in place. Yet the England head coach also knows that he can ill-afford to overlook some of Armitage’s standing were there to be a sudden rash of back-row injuries just prior to the 2015 World Cup. That caveat, of calling on someone in “exceptional circumstances” is still a live option for Lancaster and that needed to be explained to the Armitage brothers in person. There had been suggestions that either attitude problems or questionable conditioning lay behind their exclusion. Lancaster has assured them that is not the case.
Release dates from Toulon remain an obstacle but Armitage knows that his form has been noticed. “I’m definitely a better player than when I won my England caps,” Armitage said. “How could you not be, listening and learning from the likes of [South Africa internationals] Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith, Bakkies Botha or [Argentina player] Juan Martin Fernández Lobbe? You have to be on your toes every minute of every day here at Toulon. Fifteen people get signed, 15 leave the club.
“You don’t know who will be coming through that door next. Richie McCaw? Very possible. It is what drives me. I’ve got to be right on top of my game.”
He has certainly managed to scale those peaks, latterly from the unorthodox position of No8. Armitage, much shorter than the norm for a central back-row slot, has adapted superbly, losing none of his impact at the breakdown, as was shown in his man-of-the-match display against Leinster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final a fortnight ago. Toulon would be the first French side to manage a Heineken and Top 14 double since the English clubs came into the European competition in 1996.
“We are all here at Toulon to try to create history,” Armitage said, dismissing the notion that the squad are little but a bunch of foreign mercenaries. “That is what fires us, not money or anything like that. We had a poor start to the season when we thought we’d cracked it just because we’d won the Heineken last season, our first trophy in 21 years.
“Some of our performances early season were embarrassing. But we’re all fired up now. We want to become legends and the only way to do that is tzo win finals. Sunday is a final for us. Munster have far more European medals than us and it will take everything we have got to beat them. But that’s the aim: to build a massive history for this club so that we are never forgotten.”
There is little prospect of that. Armitage continues to make a significant impression on all the right people.
Original story on The Telegraph.