Studying in a city renowned for its devotion to rugby union, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to see a Stade Toulousain home match during my first month in Toulouse. I am not a huge follower of British club rugby, never mind French, so I recognised just a smattering of names displayed on the big screen when I sat down to support the black and reds for the first time. Local(ish) rivals Montpellier were their opposition in the newly formed European Rugby Champions Cup. As a big fan of the English national side, however, one name in particular drew my attention: Toby Flood.
He started the match on the bench as he continued his recovery from a groin injury which has kept him side-lined for several weeks. Introduced at half-time in centre Florian Fritz’s stead, he appeared to slot seamlessly into his new side, scoring a penalty and two conversions to provide the 7 points which ultimately separated the teams at the final whistle, the score 30-23 in favour of Les Toulousains.
I cast my mind back to the last match in which I remembered seeing Toby Flood play centre, as opposed to his more natural position at fly-half. It was during England’s disastrous 2011 World Cup campaign under Martin Johnston. My prevailing opinion of him from that performance was far from a positive one: Flood looked utterly lost as England limped out in the quarter-finals against France. He missed tackles, his positioning was poor and he just wasn’t dynamic enough for a centre in the playing for a top national side.
That was, of course, an isolated performance and, moreover, happened some time ago. Nevertheless, the Toby Flood I saw playing against Montpellier was a completely different player to the one I remember as the perennial understudy to Jonny Wilkinson.
A report by l’Equipe’s Laurent Campistron says that the ‘ball in hands’ style is as closely associated with the red and black of Toulouse as rain is to the hills of Britain – and that it is clear from Flood’s apparently easy transition to Le Stade’s style of play that he has worked hard on and off the pitch to ensure that he has become au fait with the ethos of his new team.
Flood’s description of the difference in culture between French rugby and English rugby is a thought-provoking one: “In France, you have to play with your eyes and your head, analyse the game as it comes and act accordingly. In England, there is more structure. All the players know where they have to be and when.”
Making the transition between cultures has been a steep learning curve, but one to which Flood appears to have adapted well, belying a good attitude and a willingness to learn. For a man famous for his kicking game, his move abroad has already helped him to develop as a player, and will surely continue to do so.
One might imagine that this news would be warmly greeted by the national selectors. However, current England selection policy dictates that Flood may not be allowed to implement his new-found style for his country in the foreseeable future.
England’s resolve not to select players who ply their trade abroad is one that stems from Stuart Lancaster’s vision of a certain culture surrounding his England side. Those playing abroad would not always be available to join up with the national squad, and thus might not be able to fully integrate themselves with their fellow countrymen.
This policy may ultimately be to England’s detriment, though. Last year’s European player of the year, Steffon Armitage, is currently one of 10 foreign players being considered by the French Rugby Federation to play for France, in light of his continued absence from England’s plans whilst he plays for French outfit Toulon.
Moreover, with 60 caps, Toby Flood remains one of England’s most experienced available players and, if he can continue his impressive development in Toulouse, he would undoubtedly bolster a relatively young squad with his experience and ability.
If England fail to live up to expectations at the upcoming World Cup on home soil, questions will surely be asked about the continued exclusion of some of arguably some of England’s best players. Whilst the policy to try to encourage England’s most skilled players to remain in England is admirable, it will continue to have its critics for as long as it threatens the success of the national side. And from what I’ve seen so far of French rugby, English players should be being encouraged to seek experience abroad, rather than discouraged.