Regulating against Player Movement in Professional Rugby League: A Competition Law Analysis of the RFL's "Club-Trained Rule"

Article excerpt

Who do you want to play for Great Britain? The elite or the mediocre? Because at the moment you are forcing clubs to sign mediocre players instead of other players because of this [club trained rule]. ... The problem is we don't have enough top quality players in this country. There needs to be something done to develop players for Great Britain ... but I don't think this is the right tool.' (1)

Introduction

In recent years the number of foreign players participating in Europe's premier professional rugby league competition, the Super League competition, has increased. (2) According to the Rugby Football League, the sporting code's governing body for rugby league in the United Kingdom, in 2007 at least 45% of players employed in the Super League competition were ineligible to play for Great Britain. (3) Rugby league is played at a professional level in the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand and Australia, and the Super League competition is one of two full time professional rugby league competitions in the world (the other competition is the Australian NRL). At some stage during a professional career a foreign player may take up employment in the Super League competition.

Many of the foreign players who play in the Super League competition are from Australia, New Zealand or the Pacific Islands. Some of those players are dual nationals (with one nationality being that of a Member State); or are nationals of a country with whom the European Union has an association agreement. These players fall outside the scope of the RFL's "overseas quota rule" which limits to five the number of foreign players which a Super League club may register in its first team squad. (4)

A foreign player of dual nationality with (one nationality being that of a Member State) is able to provide playing services to a Super League club without national immigration constraints. Other foreign players participating in the competition-including those players who may benefit from the decision in Deutscher Handballbund eV v Kolpak (5) -require immigration approval to work as a professional rugby league player in the United Kingdom. The criteria for a professional rugby league player's work permit are determined by the United Kingdom Border Agency following consultation with the RFL and the Rugby League Players Association ("RLPA"). (6) Consultations usually take the form of meetings and/or written correspondence, and the criteria are renewed annually. (7) Overall, the immigration procedures for employing a foreign player in the Super League competition are similar to those which apply to other industries in which an employer wishes to employ foreign labour.

The increased number of foreign players in the Super League competition purportedly harms the employment opportunities of local players in the competition; and reduces the pool of players available for selection to the English international representative team with a consequential detrimental effect for the success potential of the team in international representative matches. Consequently, in 2008, the RFL adopted the "club trained rule" (which is based on UEFA's "Home-Grown Player Rule"). The "club trained rule" aims to reduce the number of foreign players in the competition (amongst other things). Pursuant to the rule, a club's first team must comprise of a certain number of players who satisfy the definition of "club trained", "federation trained" and "academy junior". (8) If a player does not satisfy the relevant definition in relation to his employment at a particular club, he is ineligible for registration with the RFL and unable to provide playing services to that club. (9)

This article: examines the legality of the "club trained rule" under Article 81 (EC). It considers the background to the rule's introduction, including: the regulatory framework in which the competition operated in 2007; the principal pathway for a player into a professional career in Super League; the factors that influenced the level of financial investment made by a Super League club in junior player development; and the factors that influenced club demand for foreign players. …