The consensus appears to be that this it not a good thing for English rugby, that taking top players away from the Premiership will dilute its appeal and that the national team will suffer from not having access to such players apart from in agreed IRB windows (thus rendering impotent the hard-won agreement with the English clubs regarding player-release).
I beg to differ.
Let's look at the effect such moves will actually have on the parties involved:
- the Players: despite James Haskell's insistence that he is not going to France for the money (yeah, right) there's no doubt that he and Tom Palmer at Stade and Riki Flutey at Brive will end up considerably richer as a result of their moves. And, as Barry Norman might say, why not? Careers are short and if someone is willing to play top dollar (or euro for that matter) then fill yer boots. Equally there is every likelihood that they'll end up better players, perhaps even better, more rounded, people. This doesn't necessarily apply to Flutey who is already something of a globetrotter, but Haskell and Palmer have known nothing of life other than professional rugby and the English Premiership. As a life experience a few years in Paris can only be beneficial.
- the French clubs: they clearly have more money than sense, but by landing another big name like Haskell (although one has to ask how many backrowers they actually need) Stade is adding to its reputation as a major power. Likewise, if Racing manage to land Wilkinson, it will give them instant credibility as they return to the Top 14. Palmer and Flutey are less box office, but I'm sure will be very effective players for Stade and Brive respectively.
- the English clubs: although this is undoubtedly a blow for Wasps, in these tight economic times it makes certain sense for them to lose some of their higher-earning players. Certainly keeping these players on the money they were demanding would have been hugely risky financially. Wasps will do what Wasps always do - bring a couple of players through the ranks (more opportunities for the likes of the hugely promising Hugo Ellis for example) and bring in a cheaper misfit from another club to revive his career. For Newcastle Falcons losing Jonny would be a blow to their egos and to their pulling power, but again financially it might just enable them to bring in 2 or 3 players who could make a difference to their fortunes.
- the England National team: much has been made of the fact that Johnno will no longer have the same access to these players. I take the point, but equally you could take the view that increased time together has a squad has hardly produced significant results yet - unless you include record defeats at Twickenham. On a positive note, what this will allow is for Johnson to name a 32 man elite squad from players in the English Premiership and then add to it when required from players based in France. If anything it increases Johnson's options and it wouldn't surprise me too much if the big man hadn't quietly given these moves his blessing behind the scenes. Let's not forget also that these players are likely to improve their skillsets and experience by playing in a new competitive environment.
- the French national team: oh dear, if I were Marc Lievremont I'd be mightily concerned. If this becomes a trend he's going to be scrabbling around for players in the lower reaches of the Top 14 or the second XVs of the larger clubs. He already has to contend with a plethora of Sarfies, Kiwis, Aussies, Pacific Islanders and even Scots taking up places in the top French teams, and now the English are coming!
- the English Premiership: whilst there is a concern that the competition, which bills itself as the best league in world rugby, will be the poorer if the top players move to France, it is undoubtedly also an opportunity for new stars to emerge. Hopefully the economic climate will mean that clubs will not just rush out to replace these players with hackneyed imports from the southern hemisphere but will instead look to trust their younger players, thus helping to develop the next generation of potential stars.
With the exception of the French national team, then, I'd say that there are plenty of positives to be drawn from this development.
Always look on the bright side...