IRB's regulation 9 leaves clubs and countries at sixes and sevens

Complex rule over player release is casting a shadow over the home nations' autumn internationals
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It should be possible to say rather a lot in the space of 7,501 words, but even when the lawmakers of the International Rugby Board are at their most long-winded, they are never quite able to plug all the gaps, close all the loopholes or cover all the bases. Regulation 9, the governing body's attempt to legislate on player release for Test duty, is almost as prolix – the preamble alone runs to four sections, and there are endless attachments and appendices – as it is unfit for purpose. Any lawyer worth his salt would dispatch it to Room 101.

In the space of a few days, there have been fallings-out involving four leading European rugby nations. Two elite French clubs, Toulon and Stade Français, have signalled their displeasure at England's continuing demands on Jonny Wilkinson, James Haskell and Tom Palmer, while senior figures in the Welsh game have lambasted the Aviva Premiership fraternity for alleged intransigence ahead of next year's World Cup.

Ireland, meanwhile, have omitted the outstanding Leicester full-back Geordan Murphy from their squad for the autumn internationals, correctly assuming he would not be released for the meeting with South Africa in Dublin on 6 November.

And while the Scots have nothing to grizzle about right now, recent history suggests it will not take them long to spot an injustice somewhere. Last year, their tight-head prop Euan Murray missed an important British and Irish Lions get-together because Northampton refused him permission to skip training. The year before, there was a sharp argument between the national union and the English clubs over access to front-line Test personnel.

This club-versus-country conflict has been rumbling on for 15 years without the merest hint of a solution. The increase in international rugby is largely to blame: next month, both New Zealand and South Africa will be here on full Grand Slam tours, with England, Ireland and Wales all squeezing a fourth Test into a three-Test "window". Add to that the intensification of professional club rugby, fuelled by rising crowds and burgeoning television interest, and it is little wonder that the sport finds itself stuck in the age-old conundrum of quarts and pint pots.

"I have no particular problem with Regulation 9," said the Leicester director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, yesterday. "I want Leicester people out there playing for their countries and I'm disappointed for Geordan that he finds himself in his current position, although I suspect he'll be back in the Ireland squad once the Springbok game is out of the way.

"The difficulties arise when countries see the prospect of extra revenue and play four Tests, or even five, rather than three. The clubs see that as the thin end of the wedge and start wondering where it's all going to end. Ultimately, someone somewhere is going to have to decide how many Tests there are to be, and stick to it."

At the start of this week, while announcing his Wales squad for the November internationals, another hooker-turned coach, Warren Gatland, turned his guns on the English clubs, accusing them of acting "ridiculously" in sticking to the letter of IRB law and refusing to release players for World Cup training camps until early August. Backed to the hilt by the Welsh Rugby Union chief executive, Roger Lewis, he warned that as things stood, Welshmen earning their corn in the Premiership might find themselves missing out on the global gathering in New Zealand.

As Welsh officials are widely reported to be enthusiastic about the self-exiled Gavin Henson joining a London club as a means of improving his chances of World Cup participation – Saracens, short of goal-kicking playmakers after losing the Springbok outside-half Derick Hougaard to long-term injury, have now publicly declared an interest – their words carry less weight than might otherwise have been the case. If they really are encouraging their troubled midfielder to rediscover a love for rugby in England while accusing the English club movement of being the devil incarnate, they do not deserve to be taken seriously.

For all that, Cockerill has some sympathy with Gatland's wider point. "Speaking purely personally, it does seem a bit daft that international players might finish the club season in May yet not link up with their Test sides until August ahead of a World Cup in September," he said.

"We have players from a range of countries, and the likes of Alesana Tuilagi [the Samoan wing], Marcos Ayerza [the Argentine prop] and Martin Castrogiovanni [the Italian front-rower] are bound to be selected for that tournament. I wouldn't expect to see them here after the end of May. They should finish with us, have a break somewhere and then join their national squads."

In reality, there is no chance of Leicester hanging on to Tuilagi, Ayerza and Castrogiovanni until the first week in August, just for the hell of it. They would leave themselves wide open to emotional blackmail, and with their England contingent – Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Tom Croft – scheduled to enter World Cup camp in late June under a comprehensive access agreement hammered out with Twickenham, accusations of unfairness would be impossible to counter.

But the Premiership clubs crave a meaningful discussion with the IRB on Test programming, and until they are granted it, they will continue to threaten deployment of the only weapons available to them: the players whose contracts they hold.

Caught in the crossfire all the players to feel the crunch

IRELAND

Geordan Murphy (Leicester) The full-back has been left out of Ireland's autumn international squad because he plays in England.

WALES

ANDY POWELL (Wasps) The back-row forward has been dropped along with all non-Welsh-based players over fears about his World Cup availability as English clubs will not release players until early August.

Dwayne Peel (Sale) The Lions scrum-half was left out of the Wales squad for the autumn Tests for the same reason.

Rhys Gill (Saracens) One-cap prop also excluded.

Nicky Robinson (Gloucester) Fly-half left out.

Alix Popham (Brive) Back-row forward is one of two French-based players excluded.

Jamie Robinson (Agen) Has also been left out of the Wales squad.

ENGLAND

James Haskell and Tom Palmer (Stade Français) Club wanted the players to leave the England training camp to play in a key Top 14 match with Clermont Auvergne on 30 October, but it has now backed down.

Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon) Toulon also wanted their player for an important Top 14 tie on 30 October, against Toulouse. Toulon were less amenable than Stade Français to giving up their Englishman but the RFU is thought to have won out.

Comments