One of rugby’s favourite sticking points, the club vs country debate, has been rearing its head again recently. Wales’ probables vs possibles trial match, designed to help the selectors pick a squad to tour South Africa, has been organised outside of an official IRB international window, and now there is uncertainty as to whether players based outside of Wales will be released for the game or not.
To help illustrate the below, the fixtures for the next few weeks are as follows:
16/17 May: RaboDirect/Aviva Prem/Top 14 semi-finals
23/24 May: Heineken/Amlin finals
30th May: Wales Probables v Possibles match
31st May: RaboDirect/Aviva Prem/Top 14 finals
7th June: First international tour matches
Players playing outside of Wales are not guaranteed to be released for the trial game. This afternoon, Bath Rugby confirmed that, as per Premiership Rugby policy, they would not be releasing Gavin Henson and Paul James for the match – despite it being after the last game of their season, the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup the weekend before. They will be available for Wales duty from 1st June. A couple of hours previously, they also removed an article from their website congratulating Henson and James on being selected for the game.
This doesn’t make sense. It is one thing for clubs to keep their Welsh players if they are involved in the domestic finals on the same weekend, as they are entitled to do according to IRB regulations, but for a club to keep its players even if they do not have a game, especially at the end of the season with no more matches until September, seems pointless.
Now, this is not a pop at Bath. No doubt other clubs will follow suit, and they are only toeing the Premiership Rugby party line to avoid a fine – fair enough. But surely someone, whether from Premiership Rugby or the IRB, has to make sure common sense prevails and tell the clubs that it’s ok for guys that wouldn’t be playing otherwise to be released for the game. International rugby is the pinnacle of a player’s career – to not be allowed to play for an administration reason is ludicrous.
The issue came to light in the autumn too, when against Premiership Rugby’s wishes, Northampton Saints released George North to Wales for the Australia test despite it being outside an IRB window. He allegedly has a clause in his contract that says he has to be released for international matches – Northampton honoured it, and were slapped with a £60,000 fine.
The two situations are different. Bath players James and Henson have no more rugby left to play, whereas North was risking himself in the international arena when, technically, he should have been playing for his club, as per the IRB windows. Saints were rightly fined, but it’s easy to see how the situation occurred – George North is a special talent, and if he asked for a clause to release him for international matches, then Saints were going to risk it and put it in to get him to sign. North wants to play international rugby and his signature was a big enough bargaining chip for him to ask for it.
It is a different deal with the Top 14, where the WRU can negotiate with the clubs directly and secure full release – not that it always happens, as the Jenkins/Lions saga proved. It is an overarching issue that has had Warren Gatland this week threatening to stop selecting players plying their trade outside of Wales – but with so much uncertainty going on in the country at the moment, coupled with the sheer quantity of players that are based outside of it, it is a threat that even he must know is futile. All it does is show his frustration at the matter – and rightly so.
Earlier this week, a PRL spokesman outlined their stance saying: “Premiership Rugby has a policy to only release non-England players under the conditions of the International Rugby Board’s regulation nine. This regulation covers international release for every Test country across the world. This trial match does not fall under IRB regulation nine.”
But who is that helping in this situation? The clubs are scared to break the rules and the players end up frustrated at not being able to take part in national games. And in a one off case like this, it could feasibly be the death of any further chance Gavin Henson has of playing for Wales again.
The point of the Premiership Rugby deal is to ensure players don’t play too much rugby, but that argument doesn’t really work here because if Bath had made the final then chances are James/Henson would have been playing anyway.
It is incredibly difficult to keep everybody happy, but that is what the international windows are designed to do. For the most part, they work fine, but when an anomaly like this occurs, common sense needs to prevail and somebody needs to issue a statement saying the likes of James and Henson, and possibly any from Owen Williams, Rhys Gill and North himself, can be released to play.
Wales’ player pool is small enough in itself – the trial match loses a lot of its credibility, and its sole purpose, if these guys aren’t allowed to play.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43