Rugby Union: Contract chaos threatened by Murphy dispute

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The Rugby Football Union, riven by discontent and factionalism over its handling of the television contract negotiations with BSkyB, could soon become embroiled in another damaging dispute, this time over its own player registration regulations.

At the centre of the controversy is Chris Murphy, the West Hartlepool second row who wants to sign for Sale, and his agent Mike Burton, the Gloucester-based entrepreneur, whose place in rugby record books was firmly established when, in 1975, he became the first England player to be dismissed in an international.

Burton alleges that the RFU's refusal to deregister Murphy constitutes a restraint of trade and he has threatened legal action. If Burton's claim succeeds, the RFU's attempt to manage a regulated transfer market could be in tatters.

Murphy decided to leave West once they were relegated from the Courage top flight. He chose Sale, who have agreed to pay pounds 45,000, ahead of Newcastle, but before he can move the RFU has to deregister him as a West player before registering him for his new club. This the RFU will not do until West release Murphy from his contract which has almost two years to run.

"In the first place," Burton said, "Murphy only has a service contract, which contains a period of notice. West were in breach of that contract anyway, when they failed to maintain Murphy's regular salary payments. So, having given West one month's notice, he is now a free agent.

"But this isn't about contracts, it is about the registration regulations. I see players' contracts almost every day and most of them aren't worth the paper they're written on.

"In the aftermath of the Bosman transfer ruling, the Premier League are having to rewrite all their contracts and rugby might have to do the same, or very soon we will be faced with utter chaos."

The RFU will not agree to deregister a player if he is in dispute - if, for instance, he owes his club money or fails to return a club car. Neither will it do so if there is an unserved period of a contract remaining.

"This is absurd," Burton said. "A contract between a club and a player has nothing to do with the RFU. I have no wish to go to war, but they must first abide by their own regulations.

"It says clearly in the RFU's handbook that any player holding registration with a club may, upon written application to the registrar, deregister from that club. The player will cease to hold registration 30 days from the receipt of his application.

"Murphy wrote to the RFU on 1 May, so he is free to register for another club on 1 June. By refusing to accept his application, the RFU have violated Article 48 of the Treaty of Rome. Murphy's case constitutes a restraint of trade under European law. I have told the RFU so by letter and informed them that I will take legal action unless they deregister him."

The RFU has already said that it would be better if there was some uniformity contracts. However, most leading clubs use their own contracts, which are approved by the RFU.

Andrew Hindle, the chairman of West's board of management, said: "Murphy has a contract, which the RFU has seen and we believe to be valid," he said. "For Burton to suggest that Murphy is free to move while two years of his contract are outstanding is plain daft. We have no intention of standing in Murphy's way. We are willing sellers, Sale are willing buyers, and things have been agreed."

With the new season 14 weeks away, Murphy is in no hurry to sign, knowing that he can expect more favourable personal terms from Sale, if they are not obliged to pay a fee.

Meanwhile, the RFU must decide whether to take seriously Burton's threat of legal action or avoid it by deregistering Murphy. Either way, some redrafting of the registration rules and the acceptance of uniform contracts seems inevitable.