Ireland take on England this Saturday, St Patrick’s Day 2018, in the penultimate game of the 2018 NatWest Six Nations - a game which could be Ireland’s third Grand Slam title since the Home Nations championship began in 1883.
It has the potential to be a huge party at Twickenham, the home of English Rugby, straight off the back of Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, (read our first Brexit sporting blog on horse racing here). Once the dust settles and the hangovers subside after this week’s sporting events, there will still be some big talking points affecting the future of rugby in the UK.
In just over a year’s time, shortly after the conclusion of the 2019 Six Nations, the UK could be plunged into a withdrawal from the EU without a deal on our future relationship with our nearest neighbours secured. Brexit has had, and will continue to have, many unforeseen consequences. Some commentators have said that, rather than expanding arguably the finest rugby competition, Brexit could trigger a reduction in the number of teams competing in the Six Nations. I see that as highly unlikely, despite the issues that Brexit could cause in domestic rugby. One of those issues could be the rights of foreign players to play in competitions such as The Aviva Premiership, Guinness Pro12 and European competitions, which have a limit of just two foreign players in a match-day team of 23.
The Kolpak Ruling in the sin-bin?
Currently, the EU's freedom of movement principle allows sportsmen and women from the EU to compete in their chosen sports in the UK with little or no restrictions. If free movement is curtailed, European players would be subject to the same rules as non-EU players, who must have started in at least one Test in the past 15 months. Examples frequently quoted are the likes of Frenchman Louis Picamoles, who played for Northampton prior to returning to France to play for Montpellier. His caps for France against Italy a year ago would be enough for him to continue to be eligible to play in England had he remained with Saints, irrespective of the governing rules.
The same applies to Exeter Chiefs’ Michele Campagnaro, who has 32 caps for Italy. Fellow Italian Derrick Appiah, of London Scottish would potentially not be eligible to play (he is currently on loan to Edinburgh) unless included in the Italian national side, rather than Emerging Italy, the second national rugby union team in Italy.
The Cotonou Agreement
The Cotonou Agreement allows players from Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands (ACP nations) to have similar rights as EU citizens. There is a huge amount of foreign talent in the Aviva Premiership with players like Sinoti Sinoti, Nathan Hughes and the Tuilagi brothers amongst those who have originated from countries including South Africa, Namibia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. If new immigration rules mean EU players count as 'foreign players', then the same could be said for ACP players, so their future employment status may also be in doubt.
'Project Players' and ancestry
If Brexit wasn’t enough, then come the end of 2020, there will be a further rule change which will affect the qualification rights of elite rugby players into the international game. Last year, World Rugby amended Regulation 8 so that the eligibility period to play for a nation will increase from three to five years. Fijians Nathan Hughes and Semesa Rokoduguni have both played for England under this rule.
Alternative routes include a player or their spouse or a long-term partner having ancestral links, i.e. a UK-born grandparent, and from this they can qualify for a five-year ancestry Visa. Examples of players who have benefitted in this way are Willi Heinz and Jason Woodward, both born in New Zealand but last year involved in the England squad.
It’s all about the fans?
European Rugby and the Six Nations generate a huge amount of tourism and boost the economies of the cities and surrounds in which international and domestic games are played – try being in Cardiff on an international match day for instance! Whether we are heading for a hard Brexit or not, travel restrictions and wait times are likely to increase, both for people from the UK and our European counterparts. One would hope that European cooperation on security would not be adversely affected.
Some fear this could result in lower attendances, poorer atmospheres, increased ticket prices and more costly travel to matches (especially to the continent). Employee supply is also seen as a potential issue, and recently Angus Bujalski, Legal and Governance Director for the Rugby Football Union, was quoted as saying:
"At Twickenham the number of non-UK EU workers is about 25% of our match-day staff and I imagine that would be similar at Lord’s and Wembley. After Brexit, we envisage the wages of those able to be employed will go up because of the lack of availability. That will mean we’re not able to deliver the same returns to international federations, they will be harder to persuade.”
Bujalski was addressing an EU Home Affairs sub-committee examining the effect of Brexit on the movement of people in sport.
The concern for many is that the UK could miss out on hosting major sporting events, if they cannot achieve the same returns as other nations. Consequently there may be significant adverse effects on many sectors, from restaurants and hotels, travel firms to pop-up retailers and many others in the rugby community supply chain. One Irish MEP has already claimed that Ireland’s failed attempt to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup could be put down to Brexit and the uncertainty the UK’s departure from the EU has created for Northern Ireland and surrounding the question of a hard or soft border, security checks and so on.
The Grand Slam?
The organisers of the Six Nations will no doubt be overjoyed by the uncertainty with which this year’s tournament has unfolded, and the anticipation that has been created ahead of ‘Super Saturday'. But they will also undoubtedly be far less confident for the future. The economic uncertainty surrounding Brexit has been cited as a reason for the reported failure to secure the lucrative £100 million multi-year sponsorship deal for the Six Nations beyond the current tournament.
Less sponsorship revenue could result in a clothesline tackle on the finances of the unions and the clubs they support, with the potential for a detrimental impact at grassroots level investments. But that will not be the main focus this Saturday for most Irish rugby fans and compatriots, and for many people in the Home Nations (other than the English), who will be cheering for Ireland to walk away with a third Grand Slam!