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Brexit’s biggest impact on rugby league is likely to be financial

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/03/2019 Gavin Willacy
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Catalans Dragons, last season’s Challenge Cup winners, could stand to benefit from paying players in Euros. © PA Catalans Dragons, last season’s Challenge Cup winners, could stand to benefit from paying players in Euros.

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

The leadership is under attack from all sides, the future is uncertain, support on the ground wavering, fingers pointed in every direction. But enough about Wigan Warriors, let’s discuss Brexit. Now seems a good time to look at how Brexit might influence rugby league.

If/when the UK leaves the EU, the RFL could dispense with all EU agreements. Or it may retain a version of those agreements, especially with Commonwealth nations. One area likely to change are the regulations which limit the number of non-British professional players. That decision will be vital to the make-up of our elite teams.

As I wrote in Forty20 magazine, there are currently two layers of rules: the Home Grown Players Rule and the overseas quota. In any matchday 19, Super League clubs can name a maximum of seven players who were not trained in the European Federation.

The captains from all 12 Super League clubs pose during a press call to launch the new Rugby League Super League season at Thorpe Park Hotel, Leeds. © PA Images The captains from all 12 Super League clubs pose during a press call to launch the new Rugby League Super League season at Thorpe Park Hotel, Leeds.

The overseas quota applies in all divisions, where each club can only register five overseas players. The definition of an overseas player is somewhat cloudier. Basically you are exempt if you have an EU passport, or have lived and played in an RLEF nation. But any passport-holder from a country which has an EU agreement is free to live and work here.

Crucially for rugby league, that includes the Cotonou Agreement which gives those rights to Fiji, Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga. So Barrow have signed three Papua New Guinea internationals who do not count as overseas players.

So most rugby league imports on the overseas quota are Australians and Kiwis who do not have another passport. If Brexit happens, the UK will probably join the likes of Lebanon and Serbia in an association agreement with the EU. So Catalans’ English players would remain off-quota.

Rugby League - Super League - Wakefield Trinity v Warrington Wolves - The Mobile Rocket Stadium, Wakefield, Britain - March 21, 2019  Warrington Wolves' Blake Austin scores their fourth try   Action Images/Ed Sykes © Thomson Reuters Rugby League - Super League - Wakefield Trinity v Warrington Wolves - The Mobile Rocket Stadium, Wakefield, Britain - March 21, 2019 Warrington Wolves' Blake Austin scores their fourth try Action Images/Ed Sykes

But some could be more affected by post-Brexit changes than others. London Broncos only have four non-Brits, Hull FC have nine.

Most Super League clubs have seven foreign players. Of Wigan’s seven, Frenchmen Morgan Escare and Romain Navarette don’t count at the moment; Thomas Leuluai is on the overseas quota but his time as a teenager at London Broncos makes him Federation-trained; and Australians Taulima Tautai, Gabe Hamblin and Jarrod Sammut plus Samoa’s Willie Isa are all non federation-trained but are exempt from the overseas quota for different reasons.

St Helens also have seven foreigners. Despite playing for Scotland, Australians Lachlan Coote and Luke Douglas count on the Overseas Quota, but Cooks Islands duo Seb Taia and Dominic Peyroux do not due to the Cotonou Agreement.

a person with a football ball on a field: Lachlan Coote of St Helens counts as an overseas player despite having played for Scotland. Photograph: Simon Whitehead/Action Plus via Getty Images © Action Plus via Getty Images Lachlan Coote of St Helens counts as an overseas player despite having played for Scotland. Photograph: Simon Whitehead/Action Plus via Getty Images

A player can be non federation-trained but not on the overseas quota. Having moved to Australia with his family at 16, Gareth Widdop will be ‘NFT’ at Warrington but, as he is an England international, expect the Wire to seek an exemption.

Brexit’s biggest impact is likely to be financial. If the pound plunges, NRL imports will cost more. In January 2016, it would have cost a Super League club £100,000 to match the wages of an Australian being paid $210,000 in the NRL. That player would now cost £114,000. NRL players could become increasingly out of range.

Brexit could end up benefitting French clubs. That same Aussie recruit three years ago would have cost Catalans €140,000. It will now cost them just €131,000. Although they are now tied to a sterling-based salary cap, Catalans and Toulouse still have the advantage of paying in euros, making France potentially more attractive if sterling crashes.

The current rules – agreed between the clubs and the RFL, and RFL and Home Office – are designed to protect the domestic game. That should continue after Brexit. Expect the RFL to lobby the Home Office to define work permit criteria in the fashion the clubs want. Expect geographic boundaries removed and skill-level requirements raised, all overseas players to be considered equally ‘foreign’, and Super League clubs to sign players from wherever they like, as long as they are elite performers.

Clubcall: North Wales Crusaders

© PA Images

As Grand Slam winners Wales Rugby Union fight an internecine row over sacrificing a southern Pro14 ‘region’ for a northern one, remember a league club that made that move nine years ago. Celtic Crusaders were the Toronto Wolfpack of the Noughties. Filling a professional rugby hole in Bridgend, Crusaders were big spenders who raced through the third and second tiers before leaping into Super League. When the money ran dry in Glamorgan, they upped sticks for Wrexham and drew 10,000 to their opening game. It is hard to believe Brian Noble took Crusaders into the play-offs before financial meltdown and extinction months later.

It may disappoint some that the reborn North Wales Crusaders currently have only one Welsh first teamer – international winger Rob Massam – but training in Widnes encourages English recruitment. However, they do have Welsh players in their A team in the North West Counties League, and run a junior team. Their loyal away support is always impressive and never shy.

You can watch an all-Crusaders Challenge Cup fourth round tie on the OurLeague app as North Wales make the short trip to St Helens to play Thatto Heath on 30 March.

Foreign quota

Australia’s second-tier comps are under way with several players familiar to British fans. In the Queensland Cup, Jack Buchanan has joined Burleigh Bears from Toronto Wolfpack, and Canada half-back Rhys Jacks has moved from Sunshine Coast to Easts Tigers. Ex Wigan and USA prop Eddy Pettybourne has joined Central Queensland Capras after a year with Toulouse, while former Widnes stalwart Alex Gerrard is a rare Englishman in Queensland having joined Mackay Cutters. Maurice Blair has swapped East Hull for sweltering Cairns, joining a handful of NQ Cowboys who are on the Aussie version of dual-reg at Northern Pride.

In the NSW Cup, Manly’s feeder club Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles feature former Wakefield, Crusaders, Widnes and Samoa second-rower Frank Winterstein, one-time Scotland international Tyler Cassel, and Ulster’s top player: Ireland prop James Hasson from Craigbane, who appeared here briefly for Salford and Wakefield.

Goal-line drop-out

Rugby League - Super League - London Broncos v Wakefield Trinity - Trailfinders Sports Ground, London, Britain - February 3, 2019   Matty Fozard of London Broncos celebrates scoring their fifth try © Reuters Rugby League - Super League - London Broncos v Wakefield Trinity - Trailfinders Sports Ground, London, Britain - February 3, 2019 Matty Fozard of London Broncos celebrates scoring their fifth try

The second season of the RFL Women’s Super League kicks off on 7 April and concludes at Headingley on 13 October. WSL is up to eight teams, with the addition of Wakefield Trinity.

Nine of Super League’s English clubs have women’s teams now – only Salford and London Broncos are letting the side down – as do seven of the Championship. Warrington, Hull and Huddersfield are in the Women’s Championship along with established community clubs such as Oulton Raiderettes, while Whitley Bay Barbarians are flying the flag for the north-east in a League 1 which also includes Hull KR.

With 25 clubs in the structure, the game is definitely growing, albeit in a rather worryingly dense way. A total of 15 clubs are from Yorkshire, a dozen from the West Riding, which could cause issues. Time Lancashire, Cumbria, the Midlands and South got their game in gear.

Fifth and last

They may have had an indifferent start to the season but London Skolars are the go-to club for players you will know by name if nothing else. While Skolars fans are yet to see my old favourite Tommy Chipchase or new kid on the block Kanye Chan-Kitchener in action, they do have two new Kiwi hookers: Xavier Rice and Isaac Ah Kuoi-Atmore.

The latter is the nephew of former New Zealand star Fred Ah Kuoi, a hero of Hull FC’s 1985 Challenge Cup final. Rice is not the only rugby league Xavier: readers of my book No Helmets Required: the Remarkable Story of the American All Stars will remember forward Xavier Mena. A former gridiron teammate of All Stars creator Mike Dimitro at UCLA, San Diego-born Mena played league on the tours of Australia, New Zealand and France.

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