Brexit Could End Up Having A Serious Impact On Rugby & Here’s Why
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This isn’t football, and the EU rules aren’t quite the same.
The EU effects everything. And before rugby turned professional it made its most famous impact on sport with the ECJ’s Bosman Ruling. Among other things, this abolished the caps on non-English football players in the Premiership. This was in effect by 1995, so professional rugby has always been subject to the rule. There can be no limits placed on the number of EU players any professional team in the EU puts out. And there can be no rule, for example, that if an Irish player plays in France he can’t then play for the Irish national team.
Much less famous, because it only really effects cricket and rugby, is the Kolpak Ruling. This gives rights to Associated Countries, countries who are given a leg up by the EU and whose citizens are given certain extra rights when they come to work in the EU. So when South Africa and Pacific island nations were given this special status it meant their rugby players could move to Europe with much less restrictions.
Both these rules will immediately end in the UK after Brexit. In football, the FA will probably try to go back to some sort of pre-Bosman ‘English clubs for English players’ arrangement, but the money and power of the Premiership will likely stop this regression. But there is no sign of any powerful lobby interested in keeping the Kolpak ruling, leaving rugby and cricket fighting for themselves. Indeed, some would say, getting rid of Associated Countries is part of what Brexit is all about. Already there are reports of a scramble by South African cricket players for contracts in the UK before the rule ceases.
The most obvious casualty in the Rugby Premiership is Saracens. Right now seven of their team are South African. But that’s not the only country effected, Northampton have seven Pacific Islanders in their squad, who will also be on the wrong side of the rules when Kolpak ends.
England’s Loss is Everyone Else’s Gain?
Ireland, France and Italy will still be subject to the Kolpak Ruling. This is good or bad news depending how you look at it. There will be a lot of Pacific Islanders and South Africans looking for a new home, not to mention younger guys coming up the ranks, and with England no longer an option they should be cheaper for clubs than they have been previously.
But if the French haven’t reached saturation point with foreign players, they can’t be far off it. While only last week the Italian PRO 12 sides were making headlines because bosses were considering dumping them out of the tournament altogether.
So then there’s Ireland. The IRFU’s handling of Ruan Pienaar would not inspire great confidence in any other Springboks looking to move to the northern hemisphere. Though, it is worth noting, the fact he was so upset to leave and that CJ Stander seems so at home could also be a big draw factor.
It’s just that the IRFU is unlikely to support a recruitment drive from Associated Countries. It would contradict the logic of letting Pienaar go in the first place. There can’t be a policy of supporting Irish talent, like his very capable replacement John Cooney, except in cases where a Springbok player comes along at a particularly low price. Though it would be foolish not to accept some of that thinking will be going on.
But the Pienaar situation throws up some complicated questions. It’s probably not the top priority for Theresa May right now, but someone somewhere has to answer what is going to happen with Ulster rugby when Brexit happens.
Ireland will remain subject to Kolpak, and can accept Pacific Island and South African players, but the UK will not. So where will such Ulster players be employed? Could the IRFU claim all players on the island are actually employed by them in Dublin? How could someone employed inside the EU work and live outside the EU? Will the Ruan Pienaars of the future have to live in Monaghan and commute to Belfast? Or, in order to sign a Springbok, will all of Ulster rugby have to move to Monaghan?
Much like the Kolpak ruling, no one else is going to sort it out for them, so the rugby powers that be will need to figure it out themselves.