Time to fix a bug in rugby union's transfer rules
The National staff | February 9, 2014
Chris Brunskill Stringer
The National's Adam Workman writes below about the peculiarities of the rules dictating rugby union transfer.
Rugby union has, to date and to its credit, refused to implement an official mid-season transfer window. The player turnover between clubs is admittedly nowhere near as widespread or lucrative as in football, for example, yet that hasn't stopped a similarly disruptive trend from emerging.
Players who are out of contract at the end of a season cannot be formally approached until January 1 of the same campaign. But while that rule is designed to protect clubs from losing key talent halfway through a league season, this year has seen several high-profile internationals at the centre of situations that can be almost as damaging.
The majority of outgoing players who, in January, announce intentions to switch clubs will then continue to represent their current employers for another five months. And Friday's Aviva Premiership action brought such a flawed system into focus, with two would-be England No 10s taking to the field while fully aware that they won't be pulling on the same shirts come the 2014/15 season. Broadly speaking, it's akin to going through the motions in a marriage after the ink has already dried on divorce papers.
There was a point while watching the reigning champions Leicester Tigers narrowly squeak past the basement boys Worcester Warriors where the Tigers' fly-half Toby Flood badly miscued a long-range penalty. While there can be no doubting his professionalism – he did, after all, rack up 13 of his side's 23 points, including landing the decisive penalty from a tricky angle – on a subconscious level, it must be difficult to deliver for a side every week for several months after you've confirmed your exit. (Flood's expected move to the French Top 14 side Toulouse has already cost him his place in the England squad, thanks to a policy of only selecting home-based players to represent the country, although that's another minefield of controversy entirely.)
Flood's likely replacement at Welford Road has found himself in a comparable spot. After five years at the club, the Gloucester Rugby fly-half Freddie Burns has announced that he will be departing Kingsholm. Once again, we're not questioning the professionalism: Burns booted a hat-trick of penalties for his side in an away defeat to the Sale Sharks on Friday night. But when Gloucester travel to Leicester next weekend, Burns will be lining up against his probable future employers. The Heineken Cup draw, meanwhile, leaves open the possibility that Flood's Tigers could meet Toulouse in the final in Cardiff on May 24.
It's a position that these players shouldn't be in to start with. With the Aviva Premiership running from September to the end of May, the three-month close season is longer than in most sports this side of the NFL. Surely there's sufficient time to conduct all transfer business during that period?
As a relatively young professional sport – the switch from amateur status occurred in 1995 – it's inevitable that rugby union's development will continue to necessitate fine-tuning. Alongside the Aviva Premiership's devaluing play-off system, its lawmakers would do well to make a start by tackling this transfer faux pas this summer. Adam Workman