Iain Morrison: Why it’s club versus country in English rugby

Rory Bartle is part of Gloucesters academy but has  stepped down from the Welsh age grade team. Picture: Getty Images
Rory Bartle is part of Gloucesters academy but has stepped down from the Welsh age grade team. Picture: Getty Images
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It probably passed you by, but last season two of their brightest young stars suddenly pulled out of the Welsh U20s squad. Callum Sheedy is on Bristol’s books and has started at ten for the Championship leaders in recent weeks. Breakaway Rory Bartle is part of Gloucester’s academy and he only stepped down from the Welsh age grade team after turning out against Scotland but, and this is key, before playing against France.

The difference is that Scotland’s U20s don’t tie any player to one nation because they are not the designated “second team” (that title belongs to the largely defunct A-team). However France don’t run an A team so their U20s are their designated second side as are the Wales U20s. Had Bartle played for them against their French counterparts he would be tied to Wales for the rest of his career and lose his all-important status as an English qualified player (EQP).

The Rugby Football Union have just agreed a deal with the Aviva clubs that is worth a whopping £220 million over the next eight years and they want something in return.

In an understandable effort to avoid morphing into the football Premiership or France’s Top 14, both of which are dominated by foreigners, a chunk of that RFU money is an incentive to persuade Aviva clubs to field EQPs. It works. The Aviva Premiership is approximately two thirds English, the Barclay’s Premiership (football) is approximately one third English. Two years ago only four of the France’s Top 14 clubs boasted more than 50 per cent French players on their books.

In 2012 the requirement was that clubs field a minimum of 14 EQP’s in the match-day 22 (before the bench rose from seven to eight players). That figure was up to 17/23 in the last long-form agreement that runs out at the end of the current season. The new agreement which kicks in for season 2016/17 has the same number of EQP’s required but there is one big difference… the financial incentive to toe the line.

Clubs can currently earn up to £350,000 for fielding all-English squads and rumours suggest that that figure will at least double under the new agreement.

“I am as patriotic as any Welshman,” Bartle said in an interview after the event. “I still sit in front of the TV screaming when Wales are playing like everyone else… Going forward sometimes you have to put your head over your heart because this is potentially a profession until I am 35.”

Now Bartle and Sheedy’s decision to hold on to their EQP status makes more sense. Both players were dual-qualified and they are worth more to their English clubs if they remain English qualified… even if they have no intention of playing for England. It is not quite the first thing that a club coach asks when an agent is punting a player but it is invariably the second or third.

“As an asset you are simply not as sought after as you otherwise would be if you are not EQP,” said one Premiership coach on condition of anonymity. “Your market value is lower.

“We are not talking about players like Dan Carter or regular internationals. They are great players and great players will always enhance your club, you want those foreign players. What you don’t want is middling players, squad players, average guys who are on the fringes of your first XV to be foreign, you need those guys to be EQP.”

Leicester Tigers boast a young Italian prop, Tiziano Pasquali, who moved to England in his teens in an attempt to improve his rugby. He has not a drop of English blood in his body but, under World Rugby’s absurd residency rule, he is now qualified to pay for England. Pasquali will almost certainly never play for England, but he turned down the chance to play for Emerging Italy recently and we can only presume he did so because it would have spoilt his EQP status. Anyone looking to forge a career in England is better off if they are English qualified and the reasons are obvious.

England boasts 24 fully professional rugby clubs, 23 next season since Richmond, newly promoted to the Championship, insist they will remain amateur, compared to Scotland’s two and four each for Ireland and Wales.

In the past, the Celtic nations have done good business picking up the exiles and bringing them home to play Test-match rugby. That will still happen, but EQP players will now box a little smarter and those who know they are in line for one or two caps, rather than a lengthy international career, will weigh up the undoubted status of being an international player against the equally undoubted drawbacks of losing their EQP status.

It’s not just the Celtic nations that are losing out. Richard Thorpe is a lock who spent the ten seasons (2003-13) playing Premiership rugby with Saracens, London Irish and latterly Leicester Tigers. Only in 2014 did he turn out for Canada, the country of his mother’s birth, when his career was coming to an end. Perhaps Thorpe harboured ideas of turning out for England one day but he was, and always had been, an honest “grunt” and the truth is probably more prosaic. In a competitive jobs market it made better sense to keep his EQP status as long as possible.

It is not just the Premiership, because England’s Championship, in which all three exile clubs will play next season, is also tied to RFU money in return for similar EQP requirements, 16/22 of the match-day squad on average.

The same rules do not apply to European competition which results in an unseemly scramble by Aviva clubs to field foreign (ie non-English) players in less-than-meaningful Challenge Cup matches.

The odd thing about the RFU directive is that it may not even be legal. Under European employment laws it is an offence to discriminate in favour of one race at the expense of another. Ford UK can’t advertise for English, British or Italian workers. It can only advertise for European workers.

But until someone tests it in a court of law, the RFU’s financial incentives will continue to play havoc with the careers of countless professional players.