Concernover 'loyalty' clause

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Rugby League

was in a state of confusion yesterday as leading figures in the sport tried to analyse the "loyalty" contracts some players have signed with the new Super League.

A document passed to the Independent reveals that any transfer involving one of an elite group of players who have signed the contracts can be blocked by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which has put pounds 87m into the new Super League, which starts in March.

No club has as many players on contracts as Wigan, whose chairman, Jack Robinson, hoped that the clause would be unenforceable. "If a buying club and a selling club were in agreement and a player wanted to go, surely the freedom of contract regulations would stop anyone interfering," he said.

One concern for Robinson, though, is that in theory at least control of the transfer market could be used to prevent his club's continuing pre-eminence in the sport. "That would worry me," he said. "It would be totally unfair because of the amount of players we have lost."

David McKnight, managing director of Premier Crew Sports Management, represents many leading players such as Va'aiga Tuigamala, Henry Paul, Terry O'Connor, Kris Radlinski, Simon Haughton and Craig Murdock at Wigan, and Chris Joynt and Bobbie Goulding at St Helens, who have signed.

He was critical of the speed with which the deals were done at the height of the battle between Murdoch's Super League and the Kerry Packer-backed Australian . "I know of cases of players who were taken into a room and told that the offer wasn't going to be there if they didn't sign there and then - and that is disgraceful," he said.

For most, he added, it had been a commercial decision to sacrifice flexibility in the future for an immediate financial benefit. He said the contracts were designed to combat the ARL. "The main driving force behind it was that after receiving large sums of money they could be stopped from going outside the Super League," he said. "But News do have to be advised that a player wants to move within Super League. I can't see for practical reasons that it would be useful to News to stop a move from one Super League club to another."

David Howes, the chief executive of St Helens, called for clarification. "We will have to now ask for guidance from the League on the interpretation of the clause," he said. "Five or six of our players got a loyalty bonus and were under a lot of pressure on the day. The club was not directly involved with the contracts."

Maurice Lindsay, the chief executive of the rugby league, denied the body was surrendering its position of authority. "It is absolute nonsense to suggest that we have given up control of our sport or any part of it," he said. "The claims that the loyalty agreements signed between players and News Corporation require the players to play wherever News Corporation say is unfair and irresponsible.

"Voluntary loyalty agreements have been signed by players. Those loyalty agreements will benefit the player, the clubs of the Rugby Football League and the fans. The simple truth was that, within hours of the RFL signing News Corporation's contract, we came under attack from the Australian , who tried to sign overnight almost the entire Great Britain and Wales playing squads.

"The sole intention was to prevent those players from signing for Manly or any ARL club."