Rugby league falling into the lawyers' hands

Dave Hadfield analyses the disturbing implications for the future of the game
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The Independent Online
Rugby league knew, deep in its heart, that nothing could be quite the same again when it decided in April that Rupert Murdoch's pounds 87m was irresistible.

Some immediate threats of revolution, like the forced mergers of clubs to form new Super League teams, were fought off by sheer weight of public hostility. But an apparently innocuous piece of paper which has come to light this week reveals that the game can hardly be regarded as the master of its own destiny.

Despite the size of the deal with Murdoch's News Corporation, the administrators of the game in Britain have repeatedly insisted that they will retain full autonomy over the way it is run.

It was, however, a fundamental element of the deal that the game here switched to a summer season and the pay-out from News Corporation was also conditional on Great Britain, from March onwards, playing only against Super League opposition at international level.

The new revelation, in a leaked Super League "loyalty" contract, that News Corporation has a finger in the transfer market, will heighten fears over the extent of control by a media organisation.

There are arguments for intervening in the sporting marketplace, in order to produce a more balanced competition. American professional sport achieves this through a draft system, with the weakest having first choice, and rugby league in Australia, even before the current upheaval, has tried various methods of levelling its playing fields - drafts, salary caps and residential qualifications.

British rugby league has always operated a largely untrammelled transfer system, but, dominated as it is to an unhealthy extent by Wigan, it presents a particularly tempting case for treatment.

For a controlling media interest to have the final word on who plays where, however, is a whole new ball-game as far as rugby league and British sport are concerned. Equally disturbing is the way that this provision has never been publicly admitted and evidence of it exists only in a confidential document.

There are other sections of the agreement, signed in return for payments as high as pounds 100,000, that should cause concern. Players, both here and in Australia, where a bidding war between Super League and the ARL has produced even juicier incentives, do not seem to have spent much time studying the small print.

"Christmas comes but once a career," is the way that a cartoonist on one Australian paper has captured the general mood among elite players on both sides of the world.

Many players in Britain will be horrified to discover that another club could want to sign them, their present club could be willing to let them go, they could want to move - but News Corporation's lawyers can say no. However, it is not clear from the contract issued by News Corporation whether players would be free to change clubs without consultation at the end of their contracts.

The doctoring of the system in order to produce the desired structure could go one stage further in Australia, where Super League clubs are likely to be told that they must surrender players in order to get the new Adelaide franchise off the ground.

Clubs in Britain might fret over being told to do something similar, in order to launch, say, Cardiff or Newcastle.

Another clause in the contract commits players here to "co-operate with News and with its group companies in giving interviews and making public appearances in relation to the promotion of Super League."

That appears to grant special access to Sky television - which has exclusive rights to screen Super League games - and to Murdoch's British papers, The Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World, plus any official Super League publications that News decides to launch.

There is a notable absence of any requirement to co-operate with other newspapers or the BBC, whose continued coverage of the game, through the Regal Trophy and Silk Cut Challenge Cup, is under negotiation at the moment.

Ironically, it is my information that Sky have had difficulties enforcing this clause, because some players, no doubt emboldened by the cash swilling around in the game, have expected to be paid for interviews.

Also in the contract is the threat of an injunction, should a player infringe any of its clauses, and the instruction that "you shall keep the provisions of this Agreement confidential and not disclosed except as required by law".

One player, who must remain anonymous, has felt sufficiently concerned about the implications of the whole document to break that clause.

Rugby league must now ponder whether it can live with those implications; whether they are a price in forfeited independence worth paying for a huge investment in the game.

n The new Super League International Board, holding its inaugural meeting in Sydney, has decided to adopt the four rule changes, affecting the play- the-ball, kick-off and scrums, currently being tried out in Britain.