Typically I feel that I’m a very positive person that likes to see the best in everything. But even with that attitude it was hard for me not to be negative and skeptical when I saw the IRB’s press release reassuring everyone that the organization takes player release very seriously. Frankly, the IRB’s track record in this manner is not very strong. Player release issues are rarely a problem for Tier I nations (Warren Gatland may beg to differ when it comes to potential Lions playing in France). Instead, it’s the Tier II nations that typically fall victim clubs withholding or influencing players not to play for their national teams and the IRB does not have as strong as an incentive to act on the manner as a result.
Looking at the participants in the meeting, it only further enhances my skepticism. The Federation Francaise de Rugby, Premiership Rugby Liminited, Ligue Nationale de Rugby, the Pacific Islands Rugby Football Union, and International Rugby Players’ Association all participated. Does anyone else think that the the Pacific Islands were left arguing their case alone while the other bodies lectured them on the reasons why it would be better if their players played club rugby, or even worse, gave them empty promises? Maybe the Players’ Association was helpful, but one has to wonder how much effort they put in. The meeting was headed by Bob Latham, the President of NACRA and an American. That could have also been helpful, but he most likely played referee as a result of his role at the IRB.
The problem is that there is simply no incentive for clubs to release players. Until the IRB actually puts teeth into their rules, clubs will continue to pull their same antics. Only a few months ago we heard reports of clubs offering financial incentives to Fijian players to stay with their team--a clear violation of the IRB’s rules. However, we have yet to see any results of whether the IRB actually looked into the matter. The press release doesn’t provide any resolution to that specific matter or any other.
Clubs don’t even need to offer illegal payments to players to get them to forsake international duty. All they need to do is offer them a contract that is worth far more than playing for a national team can offer. The situation regarding the tug of war over Samu Manoa between Northampton and USA Rugby is a perfect example of this situation. Playing for the Eagles would mean that Manoa could lose his place in the team and thus his contract. For a Tier II player with limited professional opportunities, it isn’t worth the risk.
It’s not as if this problem doesn’t have a solution. In order to make every party happy all the IRB has to do is step in on behalf of Tier II nations and offer insurance to clubs for any player that gets hurt on international duty. Tier II nations like Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the U.S., or Canada don’t offer a lot of guarantee when it comes to players getting hurt on international duty. They also don’t offer a lot in terms of performance fees. By stepping into the void and offering clubs the same kind of compensation that the FFR, RFU, and others are able to offer then it becomes less of a risk.
The other step the IRB can take is to enforce international windows. Clubs are already required to make players available during international windows, after all that is what today’s press release was all about, but if clubs continue to play matches during breaks, whether it be league matches of cup competitions, Tier II players will continue to feel compelled to stay with their clubs in order to make up for the absence of Tier I internationals. Clubs already run out mainly reserve squads on competitions like the LV= Cup, so it may make sense to have those competitions become mid-week competitions. This will compress the season schedule, but at least it would create room for a proper international break.
Clearly there are solutions out there, but it is going to take someone with influence to make it happen. As it currently stands there isn’t anyone out that seems ready to take that role. That’s unfortunate. Until the IRB does something tangible to fix the problem, I’ll remain skeptical at any press release.
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