IRB ruling threatens transfer chaos

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The International Rugby Board yesterday threw into confusion the nascent transfer system that has followed professionalism when it insisted on a 180-day residential qualification for players wishing to change countries.

The restriction will apply even within the home countries, thereby casting doubt on the transfer of the Scotland scrum-half, Gary Armstrong, to Newcastle which had been thought to be a fait accompli once Armstrong had completed the 120-day stand-down that applies in England for the remainder of this season. From the close season the Rugby Football Union had intended only a seven-day qualification.

The acquisition by Saracens of the former captain of Australia, Michael Lynagh, is a different case, though the IRB has agreed a let-out enabling the 180 days to be waived if the unions concerned mutually agree. Otherwise Lynagh, who has already signed a contract with the north London club, would need to be resident in England from the beginning of March in order to be eligible for a prompt start to next season.

As for British players, not to mention those from the Irish Republic and the rest of the European Union, this deliberate impediment to the free movement of labour is certain to face a legal challenge both at home and in Europe. The IRB's legal advice is that it could withstand such a challenge and even if it did not, it takes the cynical view that any court case would drag on for years.

The IRB's excuse for exemption from legislation that applies in other walks of life is that it needs to keep tight control while rugby is finding its feet as a professional sport - a period Vernon Pugh, the board's newly elected chairman, puts at five or six years. The Bosman case, which has latterly established freedom of movement for sportsmen out of contract, lasted seven years.

But even though Pugh, also chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, is a barrister and his deputy, Rod Fisher, is a lawyer back home in New Zealand, the confidence with which he spoke at the end of the IRB's annual meeting in London was astonishing. For instance, he virtually ordered the RFU to reconsider its seven-day policy and said exemptions would be exceptions and not the rule.

"Rugby union is too precious to be thrown away to all these money interests who can buy up the best players," Pugh said. "It's a world asset that we have to protect. All other professional sports have been professional for some time and essentially it's the contractual position that regulates. But we are under a totally new circumstance: we have gone professional practically overnight.

"The market is a very new one and if it's left unregulated it will be to the disadvantage of the game worldwide. It's a settling-down period and I have no doubt if it's tested courts will take the view that rugby can control its own destiny at a time of transition." Not forgetting, either, that the flow of players from Pugh's union and others to where the money is - England - would be stemmed.