Common sense must prevail in club vs country player release row

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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

32 thoughts on “Common sense must prevail in club vs country player release row

  1. Bath aren’t necessarily “scared to break the rules” as such. In the AIs last year we were happy to release Paul James for the Australia match – outside of the IRB test window – in return for keeping him when Wales played Tonga. We only rescinded this offer when PRL said that we would be fined.

  2. If the WRU want access to the players then they should pay like the RFU does. Simple as that. This whole argument is getting boring.

  3. Hmm. I think this article is a bit one sided. Wales keep sheduling matches outside of the IRB windows. Why? To make money of course. I’m sure they could come to some sort of arrangment, financially, with Premiership rugby. They are rightly concerned that if their clubs release other international teams without having to pay the RFU might want to reconsider the terms of their player relaease – and no one wants to go there again.

    There are two principals here. 1) That some players have no matches left to play so why prevent them. 2) That WRFU seem unprepared to pay for extra time with their players outside of IRB windows. This article seems to ignore 2 in favour of 1. I think both sides are at fault.

    1. This is a special case though. The money’s going to charity and it’s a weekend when any Premiership player could have been playing in the final anyway.

      I’d agree with you normally but it’s just frustrating that they’re not going to be able to play on a weekend they’re just going to be sat around doing nothing anyway.

      1. How long before a “special case” becomes the norm? The WRU keep scheduling international games outside of the window, knowing that access to non Wales based players is going to be severely limited.

        I think the argument that its a charity game is a bit disingenuous. That’s not the primary focus of the match. If it were, then they could pick any Wales based players and not have to worry about they guys who play for English clubs.

        This game is about Gatland having a look at possible players to take to SA. Paul James is a dead cert anyway so there can be no real complaint about him not being available.

        Ultimately the WRU know the rules regarding fixtures and the IRB window and continue to ignore them. They really have no argument at all.

  4. I am going to shamelessly copy someone else’s comment from the Telegraph as I cannot improve on it and it deals with this question perfectly…

    “It’s worth noting that the RFU have a similar game scheduled for the same weekend, namely an England XV vs. the Barbarians. They are paying the clubs a substantial amount for extra release dates to compensate them for the risk to their players, and have arranged their fixtures well in advance.

    In contrast the WRU has thrown this trial fixture together at short notice as a glorified squad workout, due to their failure to schedule a warm up fixture for their tour to South Africa. They are offering no financial recompense to the clubs, instead they have just made demands. Trial matches in the old days were seriously physical affairs, and should a player get an injury that rules them out of next season their club will have lost a key asset for nothing.

    The WRU knows the IRB rules on player release. They know the vital financial value of the EPS agreement to the clubs and that any agreement to release players for free to foreign boards would undermine the current negotiations on its renewal. They also know that PRL has a collective policy on player release in order to protect this deal. Did they schedule negotiations well in advance to resolve these issues in a professional manner? No, they simply demanded the players they wanted three weeks before the event with no offer of compensation and proceeded to try and apply pressure through the media. This is how we got into the situation with the regions which triggered the player drain in the first place.”

    With thanks to Aladdin

    1. Totally agree and summed up far better than my attempt above!

      It will be interesting what Saints do if they don’t make the final. Contractually North has every right to go but I imagine the sanctions will get more punitive with each release.

    2. Amen! And this isn’t even an international match.
      The Welsh Regions are not happy with the WRU and it is easy to see why.

  5. Quite. Does no-one think the WRU and Gatland are at least partly to blame for this? He must have known this would be an issue when he set up the fixture right at the end of the domestic season. The clubs are not obliged to release the players, and risk a fine – and Warren knows this.

    What’s the point of it anyway? Every other international coach selects players for tours based on form by watching club games, even where they have huge depths of talent like in the SH. The resurrection of this probables/possibles thing smacks of a media stunt – and the fact Warren stuck Henson in the probables (thus guaranteeing the headlines) is evidence of this.

  6. WRU need to approach PRL and ask “we would like access to Welsh internationals for 2 weeks outside of the IRB window, one in the autumn one in the summer, what would it take to make this happen?”. I’m sure an arrangement could be put in place, but it needs to be negotiated.

    Have a conversation, negotiate, don’t just announce you are doing something outside of the rules and then portray those compliant with the rules as bad guys.

    I’ll stick with PRL on this one, yes it seems a shame that players won’t get released on a weekend they aren’t playing anyway, but the RFU pay for access, why should WRU have a better deal than the RFU?

    I feel sorry for the players, but it’s more WRU incompetence putting the players in difficult positions, just like the Warbs central contract saga.

  7. I doubt many of the Welsh Probables are too excited by this fixture either. Should Saints fail to make the final, can you imagine that George North, after a long hard season, with a very physical upcoming tour, really wants to play in a pointless showpiece match, rather than stick his feet up on a beach to try and heal some wounds?

    Let’s be honest, Wales already know who’s touring, they announce the squad straight after the match, and a proper assessment would need video analysis etc etc. It’s completely pointless, and just a risk for injury for most the probables, nothing to gain, everything to lose.

    1. I think the military rugby unions have very strong ties with the RFU. Perhaps the EPS rules also have clauses for the military.

      1. We seem to be missing the obvious- Army v Navy is not an international game, or in anyway connected to a international rugby union (like Wales Probables v Possibles) so IRB regulation 9 or Premiership rugby’s regulations of player release for the RFU/WRFU do not apply?

        Bath, if they so wanted, could let Roko play in an army match every week without risk of fine.

  8. Army Navy may be different because it’s not a Union game (English or otherwise) and may well have their own agreement with the PRL. Roko is also still an employee of the Army, they can probably call on his services for whatever reason, whenever they wish.

    1. Yes Dan, I would very much imagine that Roko has an agreement with the Army that allows him to play for Bath (and presumably England if it becomes relevant), rather than the other way around.

  9. The WRU can do what ever they want, they are law unto only themselves. They are doing this for two reasons:

    1) To give there players who are playing for the regions some chance of maintaining match fitness as otherwise they wont have a game between last Pro 12 game on May 10th and Eastern Province on June 10th. If one or two of the regions were in the playoffs this wouldn’t have happened I guarantee. They could’ve got a game with barbarians but that would’ve only meant fielding out 22 players.

    2) To raise the issue in the media and put pressure on players who are moving to clubs outside of Wales to ensure they sign full release contracts along the lines of George North. If Northampton don’t make the prem final then George North will be playing, Northampton cannot refuse it and will be in breach of contract if they try to restrict him. PRL will fine them more but if Northampton don’t release then potentially North could walk away from his contract, claim constructive dismissal and beach of contract, get paid the rest of it and still sign a new bumper deal with another club for next season

    Gatland said “Going forward, we might have to review the policy of potentially selecting England-based players if they’re not going to be available.” the key bit being if they’re not going to be available!

    No one in Wales is expecting any player in a club game on the same weekend to play, yet people outside Wales are expecting people like Gavin Henson to sit on there arse instead of putting there hand up for a chance to represent there country plus all the financial benefits that has? Sounds like madness to me. all of this on a weekend when england are playing barbarians anyway?!

    As for players not being excited by the prospect I went to the Scarlets end of season dinner on Tuesday and the guys I spoke to there were very keen for a game, apart from Rhys Priestland who hobbled around looking glum on his crutches.

    1. The Madness is that WRU expect English clubs to give them a better deal than they give the RFU. They will eventually have to learn that they cannot continue to ride rough shod over professional clubs as they attempt to do with the Welsh regions. Why cannot they negotiate a deal with PRL along the lines of the deal with the RFU for the release of English based welsh players? Of course this would involve the WRU accepting that there are other stakeholders with legitimate interests in the game and this is clearly anathema to them.

      1. Couldn’t agree more. Warren either needs to accept that players in the English Premiership are not going to be available for fixtures like this, or put his money where his mouth is and stop selecting players from outside Wales. And we all know this is never going to happen.

        Sort out the central contract issue, sort out the mess with the regions, and stop blaming the English/French clubs all the time for merely playing by the rules.

        1. I hope Northampton get to the final and George North picks Wales to illustrate where “merely playing by the rules” instead of the spirit of the game is going to lead!

          1. I hope so too. Maybe with a doubled up fine at circa £120,000 to come off their salary cap and with him missing an important game Northampton will realise the folly of entering into such contracts in future.

            Remember this isn’t actually a club versus country issue at all. It is a club versus FOREIGN country which is quite different. The PRL and RFU seem to be working together quite well. Partnership has to be the way forward. If WRU don’t want to partner they can hardly complain if the clubs refuse to be browbeaten.

          2. ‘The spirit of the game’. WTF has that got to with players being released for a nigh-on pointless training game? This isn’t a capped international.

            The WRU could have sorted this easily if they weren’t so dis-organised and arrogant. Its no wonder Welsh rugby is in such an almighty mess

            The rules are there for a reason. The clubs pay these players’ salaries, they look after them medically, they train them and keep them at peak physical fitness, some clubs even try to ensure that players are ready for a life outside rugby. That’s a significant investment in each and every player and its hardly any wonder that the clubs wish to protect their interest when it comes to international call-ups – let alone idiocies like this game.

            Welsh supporters should be demanding to know why their union can’t act professionally rather than blaming it on the handy scapegoats of the PRL

          3. Absolutely no chance in hell that North will play in a glorified training game over a Premiership final.

          4. I think George North would be foolish to do that. It would certainly give the wrong impression to the Saints management staff.

            Spirit of the game is a load of cobblers anyway, usually invoked by people who know they are in the wrong.

  10. Semesa Rokodunkey to play for England-that’s a dead cert! He is from the SH so will be in like Flint.

    Probably get less than 6 caps and then be thrown on the scrapheap that Vulcanipola in 2008.

    Army/Navy to release/get players released because of ‘the special relationship’ with the RFU yep I am not surprised by that……………

    ‘I say General Sir Vincent Smythe Ogilvy should we pick that Dunkey chap for the Army game next week and then the Army can release him from duties for that Bath game against Sarries’

    1. Well done on taking the moral high ground. I can’t envisage Wales capping any player that wasn’t Welsh.

      Oh, wait…..

    2. The army still pay his wages, I’m sure if the WRU agreed a payment deal (like the RFU has done, and is paying for the baabaas game), then the players would be released.

    3. The forces players do not get released because of a special relationship with the RFU.

      They get released because the forces encourage and support their charges in playing top level sport. It is in their interest to do so.

      Scottish and Welsh services personnel would be afforded the same privelege.

  11. Out of interest, could you list all the non English players in the current England squad. Just so I can obliterate your argument further.

  12. Well we can start with the Y on the list …. the St Lucian born player who attended a private school.

    1. Yarde played all of his rugby in England (moved to England aged 9, took up rugby at 14). That, for me, is fine. It’s the mercenaries (such as Hape) that I have a problem with.

    2. So who should Yarde be playing his international rugby for then?

      A kid discovering a game, finding out he’s good at it, earning a scholarship to a good school and going on to earn international honours is a great story. Hope we have many more like it in the future.

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