Law Change May Lead To England Crisis - 28/01/04
By Mark Souster
Source: The Times Online — 28/01/2004
AS SIR Clive Woodward prepares to name his squad for the RBS Six Nations Championship, the long-term wellbeing of the English game and his own ability to retain the World Cup in 2007 could be undermined by yet another relaxation of employment laws for overseas players.
Working Holiday Visa
In the wake of the "Kolpak" ruling, which gives certain players - including South Africans, Samoans and Fijians - European rights and which has prompted concerns about a possible influx of cheap imports, The Times can reveal that the Home Office has confirmed that changes introduced in September to the so-called Working Holiday visas granted to Commonwealth citizens also apply to professional sportsmen and women.
It means that, from now on, an Australian or New Zealand rugby player between the ages of 18 and 30 who does not have a European Union passport can follow their chosen career for the full two-year term of the visa in Britain. In the past, the visa restricted individuals to working only 52 of the 104 weeks - and not in their line of work. It opens up a new vista for players who would not otherwise meet the more stringent work-permit criteria.
Bath, the Zurich Premiership leaders, are expected to be the first club to take advantage of the new ruling. With fitness doubts surrounding Mike Catt and Iain Balshaw, and with Olly Barkley no doubt in Woodward's thinking, the club has agreed terms with Darryl Lilley, a goalkicking full back or fly half from Canterbury Crusaders. Lilley was given clearance yesterday and is due in Britain on Monday. Provided negotiations with his agents are completed, Lilley could make his debut on February 7 against London Wasps at the Recreation Ground.
Along with the Kolpak ruling, this development only adds to the concerns of many in the game, among them Fran Cotton, the chairman of Club England, who said yesterday that this was the biggest issue facing English rugby over the next ten years. Cotton is involved in the task force set up by the RFU a fortnight ago, whose remit is to find a way through the morass - most importantly one that is legally sustainable.
It met for the first time on Monday, and today's revelation will only add to the pressure on its members, who include Chris Spice and Jonathan Hall from the RFU, and Rob Andrew, Simon Halliday and Phil Winstanley from Premier Rugby, to arrive at a solution that satisfies the needs of both the clubs and the RFU. It must report by mid-March.
Fran Cotton Speaks
Cotton is adamant that the clubs must fulfil their obligation as set out in the Long Form agreement they signed with the RFU two years ago. This stipulated that 17 of the 22 players - or 77 per cent - in a Premiership squad has to be England qualified. "In the last round of Premiership matches, that figure had dropped to 52 per cent," Cotton said. "This new Working Holiday visa, coming on top of Kolpak, will guarantee that it drops even further. That equates to 66 fewer English players turning out for the clubs than had been agreed. That is how severe it is. It will have a massive impact on England, which is the golden goose."
RFU To Join Forces
The threat is so severe that Cotton believes that it may be prudent in the longer term for the RFU to join forces with other governing bodies to challenge the implications of Kolpak for sport in Britain. "I can't believe this was the European Union's intention," Cotton said. "It is a loophole lawyers have exploited and it needs to be closed."