England’s Premier Rugby club competition has been accused of sabotaging next year’s World Cup in New Zealand.
Wales coach and former All Black Warren Gatland is leading a chorus of protest against the English club administrators following a provocative move to delay release of players ahead of the global tournament. Gatland said the World Cup prospects of nations of nations such as Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga will be significantly undermined if the International Rugby Board did not pull the English clubs into line.
Premier Rugby has written to national unions refusing to release any non-England internationals contracted to English Premiership clubs until the statutory 35 days before the World Cupstarts.
The letter has caused anger and the IRB has been called upon to act.
Gatland, who just resigned with Wales until the end of the 2015 World Cup, branded the move as unacceptable and said unless common sense prevailed, players from those clubs would not be selected to go to New Zealand.
Wales’s first warm-up match before the World Cup is against England on August 6, two days after non-English players will be released by Premiership clubs.
Premier Rugby’s letter to the national unions pointed out when it is obliged to release players. The angry response to the letter has prompted Martyn Thomas, the England Rugby Football Union management board chairman, to intervene on behalf of Wales, Ireland and Scotland by meeting Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, this week.
McCafferty told the Guardian newspaper that Premier Rugby was prepared to compromise, but only if the issue was dealt with not in isolation but as part of a discussion with the IRB on a range of issues governing the release of players, including the proliferation of unofficial Tests and concerns that players are not properly insured on international duty.
Under IRB regulations, clubs are not obliged to release players to join their countries to prepare for the World Cup until August 4. Premier Rugby’s policy, which was unanimously agreed by the 12 clubs, is never to release non-English players outside the stipulated IRB window.
England players are released outside the windows under a deal struck with the (England) Rugby Football Union, which pays about 150,000 pounds per player for the privilege. France’s Top 14 has taken a similarly hardline stance to Premier Rugby.
Gatland has named a 33-man squad for next month’s four internationals in Cardiff, including one against the All Blacks, and did not include a single player who earns his living outside Wales. The Sale scrum-half Dwayne Peel and the Wasps No8 Andy Powell were the main casualties. Scotland have nine Test players contracted to Premiership clubs.
“The concern with Peel and Powell primarily was that they would not be available for our first international against Australia as it falls outside the official window,” Gatland told the Guardian.
“The other issue was the letter we had from Premier Rugby saying its players will not be released for the World Cup until 4 August. It will severely limit the preparation time of players based in England and puts a question mark over whether they will go to the World Cup. If they are not made earlier, it is very unlikely they will be considered for the squad.
“No one has had much success changing Premier Rugby’s stance on the issue of release. It should be about common sense, but that is not always the case in modern professional sport.
“Premier Rugby’s stand is unacceptable and ridiculous. It is not in the spirit of the game. I am disappointed not so much with the politics but with some players being denied the chance to go to the World Cup. The people making these decisions have clearly not played international rugby.”
Gatland pointed out that Powell’s contract with Wasps ended in May, which would allow him to attend the July training camp. That would be the same with Gavin Henson, if Ospreys grant the centre his wish to join a London club for the rest of this season with a view to rejoining the region in the summer.
The Scottish Rugby Union wants the IRB to intervene. “We have some concerns and need clarity,” said a spokesman. ”It comes down to the importance of the World Cup. Unions want to make sure that it is seen as the pinnacle of the sport’s calendar and we are looking for leadership from the Board.”
Thomas said he had written to the Celtic unions. “I will be arranging a meeting with Mark McCafferty as a matter of urgency,” he said. “We cannot force Premier Rugby to release players but we can find out what they would like. I suspect, though, that this is an issue of principle, not money.”
A number of World Cup countries are affected by the policy, including Italy, the United States and the South Seas islands.
“Tier two nations are being significantly disadvantaged because their players have to go abroad to earn their livings,” said the Welsh Rugby Union chief executive, Roger Lewis. “Clubs in certain countries have taken advantage of these players and are not respecting the powerful, emotional pull of an international jersey.
“We are not going to be blackmailed or held to ransom by English clubs. It is the responsibility of the RFU to ensure the game in England is run in the best interests of all.”
The Guardian reported that the IRB is maintaining a watching brief and would only become involved if the RFU got nowhere with Premier Rugby.
“Too much is being made of this,” said McCafferty. “All we did was to write to unions pointing out what the IRB’s official release dates were.
“I am sure we can reach an accommodation over releasing players for World Cup duty before 4 August, but we have been asking for a meeting with the board for a long time to discuss the regulation governing release of players as a whole.
“We are not being unreasonable and all we are asking is that the interests of clubs are considered, not just unions, because too much is being asked of players.”
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