London Irish set Steffon Armitage free to make his French connection

Steffon Armitage is heading for Toulon after he was last night granted an early release from his London Irish contract.

The England international has agreed terms on a three-year deal with the French Top 14 club, where he will replace the departing Australian George Smith.

Armitage's contract with London Irish ran until 2012 and the Aviva Premiership club had insisted he would not be released unless they could find a suitable replacement.

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The club announced their decision to sanction Armitage's departure just hours after being accused by Leeds of making an "illegal approach" for their England flanker Hendre Fourie. Leeds claim London Irish have been guilty of unsettling Fourie, who is still under contract at Headingley until the summer of 2012. The Yorkshire club have lodged an official complaint with Premiership Rugby.

Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington said in a statement: "We allege unprofessional conduct in that (player agent] James Adams contacted London Irish and negotiated a lucrative contract for Fourie in the weeks leading up to the end of the league season in full knowledge that the player was under contract, also that London Irish negotiated a lucrative contract with the players' agent and, thereby, unsettling him and inducing him to break his contract with Leeds Carnegie."

Armitage, 25, has won five England caps but his last Red Rose appearance was against Italy in the 2010 RBS 6 Nations.

The Rugby Football Union have made it clear to all players who move abroad this summer that they will not be eligible for England selection from the start of 2012.

Armitage's Toulon team-mate Jonny Wilkinson has already decided to sign a new deal with the Top 14 side. The only way he will continue to play for England beyond the World Cup is if he is considered an exceptional case. Fellow international James Haskell, whose current deal with Stade Francais ends this summer, is weighing up his options but could decide to remain in France.

Toulon president and owner Mourad Boudjellal originally announced a deal had been agreed for Armitage, a key player for London Irish, last month. Coach Phillippe Saint-Andre said at the time: "He's a very fast player and very powerful, given his size and his weight. He can also play at centre and he speaks French."

Wilkinson added: "He's a very professional player, very good in defence and he's a big threat when he's running with the ball."