Does the RFU have a case to answer? Posted about 10 years ago

What, I wonder, would happen to rugby union if the unions of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France decided to revenue share and use the power of their international TV contracts to centrally contract all their international players.

I ask the question in light of the current shambles that is again making European rugby a global laughing stock. The French clubs have just agreed a £60 million-a-year deal for Top 14 rugby with Canal Plus, England are out in the cold as usual and Sam Warburton has signed a central contract with the WRU for £270,000 a year because the regions have no financial security.

Cardiff chairman Peter Thomas said, “The product we have got isn’t acceptable to the public and players, and it’s not selling. If the product doesn’t sell, you either have to improve or change it. If it doesn’t sell we are going to die and, right now, regional rugby is dying by a thousand cuts. When do you want the funeral?”

No one wants the funeral but we have been in mourning far too often since the game went professional. The fundamental problem is that the clubs in France, England and Japan have always paid above market value for their players, underwritten by companies, rich individuals and the absurd payments they extort out of the unions for their ‘share’ in a product – international rugby – that would not be devalued if all the clubs went bust overnight.

Most of the home unions are already resigned to losing a number of their players to French club rugby. England remain defiant and will only pick players who ply their trade in France under “exceptional circumstances”. That phrase really means; no one has a clue what European employment law would say about any of this, so we are not barring players absolutely in case anyone wants to bring a test case.

But a test case would probably be a good thing. If players are unavailable for certain matches and squad sessions because of their commitments to club rugby in France, then why should an employer like the RFU take them on? And what would European law make of the IRB’s international release dates? Surely they are a restriction of trade on clubs. At present, there is a lot of contradictory law surrounding the areas of free movement, competition and territory in sport.

Jamie Noon, who acts as an agent these days, said of the union’s reluctance to pick players such as Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood and the Armitage brothers, “In effect the RFU are trying to stop you from working even though they will just say, ‘Oh, he has not been picked.’”

The problem with Noon’s argument is that the French clubs have been comparatively reluctant to contract too many players (particularly from the less powerful nations) who want to pursue international careers. Both sides are guilty of a restriction of trade. And that is before we even begin to discuss the legality of a salary cap.

The simple solution – so it won’t happen – is to test the international game’s value against the value of the England and French leagues and the European Cup. Either the leagues would prove more lucrative for the players, in which case we would end up with a professional game more akin to soccer. Or the international game would be more rewarding, in which case rugby would be more like the structure of cricket.

The trouble is that the administrators are too gutless and the club owners too fearful to test the market. If the club v country game was finally played, then we could look to the future. For now we look to the upcoming Six Nations to give us some respite from all the nonsense.

Who do you think would win if such a case was taken to the European courts? Comments below

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Mark Reason has been a sports journalist for over 25 years. He currently works for Fairfax Media and will also be part of the Telegraph's World Cup team and a regular panellist on Radio New Zealand during the World Cup. He has covered every Rugby World Cup since 1991, the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, over 40 golf major championships, the FA Cup final, the Epsom Derby and a lot of other stuff he can't remember. Mark emigrated to New Zealand in 2010 having spent over 20 years covering sport for the Telegraph and Sunday Times in Britain.

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