Armitage focused on Toulon as England debate rages
Can the French-based flanker persuade England coach Stuart Lancaster to pick him this weekend?
It's not just semi-final weekend in the FA Cup, rugby fans are also gearing up for a weekend of drama as the last four battle it out for a place in the final of European rugby's showpiece - the Champions Cup. And it is a weekend that could have huge implications for England's World Cup campaign later this year.
The only English side left in the competition is Saracens, last year's runners-up, who travel to Saint-Etienne on Saturday to face French outfit Clermont.
Clermont thrashed Northampton Saints 37-5 in their quarter-final clash a fortnight ago, so Saracens – despite the inclusion in their squad of England's Owen Farrell, recently returned from a long-term knee injury – are rank outsiders to reach a second successive European final.
But English fans will have just as much reason to watch the other match up as Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage stakes centre stage as the defending champions take on Leinster at Marseille's Stade Velodrome, an intimidating venue that's expected to welcome around 50,000 fans.
Toulon are rugby's answer to Real Madrid's Galacticos, a team of stars whose quality has barely been diminished by the retirement last year of Jonny Wilkinson. Armitage is one of the team's brightest lights and this weekend he could make a late bid to force his way into the thoughts of England coach Stuart Lancaster as he ponders his squad for September's World Cup.
There was a time when an England squad was picked on merit alone, but that was before Lancaster became coach in 2012 and let it be known that he would only select English-based players for his England team. Parochial or principled? That's the question that has divided English rugby ever since. There are many who agree with Lancaster's rule (encouraged by the RFU), fearful that if it wasn't in place there would be an exodus of English players to France, which boasts the richest league in rugby.
But recently there have been rumours that Lancaster is thinking of relaxing the rule for the World Cup, invoking the 'exceptional circumstances' of a tournament that England are hosting for the first time in 24 years. And Armitage, last season's European Player of the Year, is the man that could prompt the rethink. The 29-year-old is the type of ball-winning terrier that England have badly missed since the days of Neil Back a decade ago and there is little doubt England would be stronger with him in the team.
As for the man at the centre of the controversy, he's just focusing on the job of beating Leinster on Sunday, no easy task given that the Irishmen were European champions in 2009, 20011 and 2012.
When The Week spoke exclusively to Armitage earlier in the week, he dismissed the idea that the England saga was a distraction. "There's been lot of stuff in the media... but I don't pay attention to it," he said. "My focus is on my game and not on the media. Nobody has spoken to me about it so people can keep saying what they want. I'll just keep my head down and keep doing the best I can because anyway, that's the only way I'm ever going to get picked."
Armitage, whose brother Delon also plays for Toulon, comes from a tightknit family and credits that closeness with his rise to the top ranks of world rugby. "I was brought up to be a rugby player," he explains. "My first priority is playing and not worrying about things that are not true."
Armitage won five caps for England in 2009-10 while at London Irish but it's since his move to Toulon in 2011 that's he matured into a world-class flanker. Last season he was named European Player of the Year for his part in helping Toulon win a European and domestic double. But he says that accolade hasn't brought any additional pressure: "In my eyes I always want to do better every year," he says. "It's me against the world and I make it as hard for myself as it can be. I set myself goals, which are to keep my place in the Toulon team and keep doing what I do every day."
Toulon are favourites against Leinster, not just because of their strong recent form but because when the sides met in the quarter-finals last season the French triumphed 29-14. Speaking to Armitage one senses that there is a quiet determination to ensure that success is repeated on Sunday. "I think we've definitely shown over the years that even if we're not at our best throughout the whole season we can definitely pick it up when it matters," he says. "So the boys are ready for Sunday. There's a lot of competition for places in the team right now and that's great because it makes training sharper. Everyone wants to play and that can only be good for Toulon."