England door not shut on Armitage

Steffon Armitage faces another season of England exile but could still be drafted into Stuart Lancaster's Rugby World Cup 2015 squad at the last minute.

Steffon Armitage, centre, has still not been ruled out of Rugby World Cup action in 2015
Steffon Armitage, centre, has still not been ruled out of Rugby World Cup action in 2015

England head coach Lancaster has refused to fight England's policy of not selecting overseas-based stars other than in 'special circumstances'.

Double Heineken Cup champion Armitage will not add to his paltry return of five caps next term, despite claiming the European player of the year award on Monday.

Lancaster conceded he would invoke the 'special circumstances' get-out clause to include flanker Armitage in the World Cup however, should injuries bite in the build-up.

"The special circumstances have got to be associated with injuries," he said. "It's not my rule but it is a rule I support.

"The players are aware: I had a conversation with Toby Flood about his move to Toulouse this summer and he's aware of his position.

"But equally there is that potential there, but it would be more likely closer to a World Cup if that was the case.

"That would have to be for me close to a World Cup, I wouldn't do it at the moment, for a New Zealand tour, autumn international or for Six Nations either. Not when I've got other players out there who could be developed."

Flanker Armitage spearheaded Toulon's gritty 23-6 Heineken Cup victory over Saracens in Cardiff on Saturday, outmanoeuvring the much-vaunted north London club's back-row.

The 28-year-old ranks among the world's most potent loose-forwards, but has not represented England since 2009.

The former London Irish star has been ineligible for international selection since his Toulon switch, as England bid to shepherd their top stars away from the lure of big money on offer across the Channel.

Lancaster said abandoning the refusal to select overseas-based stars would spark an exodus of top talent to France.

The former Leeds boss also suggested it would disrespect agreements reached between Premiership clubs and the RFU to release players for international duty outside traditional International Rugby Board windows.

"Playing for England is the ultimate really, and you want the players to play in our club programme," he said.

"We pay an unbelievable amount of money for a club-country relationship that gives you access to the players you don't normally get through the IRB situation.

"I do think probably the biggest one is still about players playing here and if Steffon or Toby (Flood) was to go and keep playing for England, what would happen next?

"If Manu, Corbs and Courtney, and Owen, and the list goes on, if they were to choose to go, I think that would have a knock-on effect.

"But I'm not getting any indication anyone does to be honest, the younger players certainly, all they are talking about is wanting to play for England and for their clubs."

Lancaster believes Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley is 'very, very close now' to a return from shoulder trouble, boosting his chances of making Saturday's Aviva Premiership final and the New Zealand tour.

England selected an initial 30-man squad to jet out to New Zealand on Tuesday, with the international contingent from Saracens and Northampton flying out on June 2.

The IRB scheduled the New Zealand series to start just seven days after the Premiership final, ruling out any participants from the first Test.

Bath hooker Rob Webber is expected to be fit for the June 7 first Test after knee trouble.

Young Harlequins duo Will Collier and Kyle Sinkler will fight out the fourth tighthead prop berth for the New Zealand tour in the England XV clash with the Barbarians at Twickenham on June 1.

Confirming Northampton's Stephen Myler will join the tour barring incident in Saturday's Premiership final, Lancaster hinted Freddie Burns remains ahead of Danny Cipriani in the race to start the first Test at fly-half.

"He's been good on the field, he's been growing in terms of his leadership and his presence," said Lancaster on Cipriani.

"As a fly-half you have to have a voice and you've got to be able to boss people around, and I think he's beginning to improve in that area as well.

"He's a little bit behind Freddie in that regard, because Freddie's had so much time and experience with us over the last two years.

"Even though Freddie hasn't played as many games in the last two years as someone like Owen, he's been in the camp a long time. So as a consequence he understands it a bit better."