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Brexit Kicks UK Rugby Into Touch

Heineken Champions Cup Quarter-Finals take place on the weekend of 29 March 2019. However, four of the eight teams may be facing a new team selection challenge due to BREXIT, unless their match is scheduled to be played on 29 March.

The Eligibility of Players rules for the 2018/2019 Heineken Champions Cup tournament states that each club is permitted a maximum of two ‘non-European players’ in each match squad. This rule refers to the geographical continent of Europe as opposed to the EU. However, EU countries may treat any citizens of a country which is part of an Association Agreement with the EU as a ‘European player”. BREXIT will prevent the UK clubs from applying the broader EU interpretation of a ‘European’ player.

The basis for the broad interpretation of a ‘European player’ occurred in 2003 when the European Court of Justice made a ruling in favour of Maroš Kolpak, a Slovak handball player. The ECJ (as it was then known) declared that citizens of countries which have signed European Union Association Agreements have the same right to freedom of work and movement within the EU as EU citizens.  Therefore, any restrictions placed on their right to work, such as quotas setting a maximum number of such foreign players in sports teams, are deemed illegal under EU law. This ruling is often referred to as the ‘Kolpak Rule’.

The largest group of countries with an association agreement with the EU is the ACP Group of States under the Cotonou Agreement. The ACP countries include South Africa, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Players from these countries in UK clubs will now have to compete for the two ‘non-European’ player spots which are usually kept for New Zealand and Australian players.

The problem for the UK clubs is that the club will only get the benefit of the Kolpak rule if it is in an EU member country.  Therefore, Edinburgh, Saracens, Glasgow Warriors and possibly Ulster will all have to review their squad for the quarter-finals and ensure that they have the required front row players for the match among their players who are European citizens with only two non-European players.

The European Professional Club Rugby (“EPCR”) rules for the Heineken Champions Cup  provides that each club must nominate a squad of up to 41 players before midday on 20 September 2018. Only three additional players may be registered during the pool stage and a further three may be registered in the knockout stage by 12 noon on 14 March 2019.  A minimum of six front row players must be included in each match squad and in the event of illness or injury a club may nominate and register with the EPCR further front row players as Emergency Front Row players on a match-by-match basis provided that the details of those players were submitted at the same time as the 41 player squad.  These rules seem to allow for sufficient scope for the Club but if the Club did not plan for BREXIT it could lead to weaker teams and possibly uncontested scrums in the match.

Ulster Rugby is a slight anomaly as it is a branch of the IRFU and therefore, it may be able to argue that it is not a UK club. However, the club’s home grounds and registered address is in the UK. It remains to be seen whether or not EPCR deems Ulster Rugby to be a UK club or an Irish club. Nevertheless, Ulster Rugby do not appear to be as reliant on the Kolpak rule for its players and may not have to get a decision on this question by 14 March.

It will be interesting to see whether the UK Clubs register additional players before 14 March 2019 and whether we see new players named for the quarter-finals.

Next year, the UK Clubs may be looking to Ireland to strengthen their squads with more European players and the players from South Africa, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are likely to be looking for new clubs within Europe to play. This will hopefully give weaker teams in Europe more strength and ability to compete at a higher level and add a new dynamic to the game.

22nd January 2019

Anne O’Connell Solicitors

Fitzwilliam Hall, Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin 2.

www.aocsolicitors.ie

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