In sports such as football and cricket, the international game does not always take preference to every other level in the sport.
International football mostly takes a backseat to the more lucrative club game between World Cups, while it’s becoming increasingly more common for cricketers to opt out of Test cricket in order to make more money in T20 leagues around the world.
Not so in rugby.
Test rugby remains the highest level of the game and something resembling cricket’s Kolpak rule (allowing foreign players to participate in England’s county cricket while foregoing their right to play international games) cannot legally exist in rugby.
While the trend of rugby players choosing the greener pastures of European and Japanese clubs certainly hurts the domestic game, detrimental effects to the international brand can be avoided.
Rassie Erasmus has so far exercised his right to select overseas-based players, thanks to SA Rugby scrapping their short-lived, 30-Test eligibility law, and this ensures the Boks are able to field their strongest team possible.
European clubs have never been the most cooperative sort when it comes to nations calling up their most valuable and expensive internationals, but these clubs have historically done little more than grumble and moan. However, as Test nations have increasingly embraced their foreign-based resources, European clubs have shifted from being uncooperative to outright resistant.
Last week, Leicester Tigers stated they expected both of Australia’s Tatafu Polota-Nau and Matt Toomua to return to the England during the Rugby Championship, and similar reports emerged regarding Sale Sharks halfback Faf de Klerk.
Dai Young said that he hadn’t planned on Willie Le Roux playing for South Africa this year and the Wasp’s Director of Rugby went on to say the club only expected Le Roux would be gone for three weeks before returning, after which “he may go back for one more game.”
World Rugby has taken a clear stance on Unions selecting overseas-based players, stating that no club, “whether by contract, conduct or otherwise may inhibit, prevent, discourage, disincentivise or render unavailable any Player from selection [by] a National Representative Team.”
Why, then, does it appear European clubs are doing just that?
The answer can be found in the strict understanding of the Rugby Championship’s international window which only covers the six weeks where matches are played, while the two ‘off’ weekends fall outside the window. European clubs are arguing that their players must be returned to them on these weekends.
At first it seems the clubs have every right to make such a request, even though it is clearly made in the hopes of discouraging Unions from selecting their players. However, Regulation 9.33 (which directly addresses the selection of northern-based players by one of the four Rugby Championship Unions) clarifies the matter.
It states that the Rugby Championship nations may exercise their right to call up players contracted to “Rugby Bodies or Clubs in the northern hemisphere” for all “eight weeks out of the eight week period.”
It’s a clear and simple reading of the rugby law and, by pressuring Unions to release their players during the Championship, European clubs are breaking said law.
World Rugby still has a chance to uphold the international game above all else in the sport and stem the rising trend of clubs telling Unions what to do, rather than the other way around. All it requires is for them to enforce the rules they wrote.
After all, as World Rugby’s Handbook reminds us: “the future development and extension of the sport at all levels and throughout the world would be threatened if a Union was not able to select and have available the Players it requires.”
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Follow Joshua on Twitter: @BalcombBrown