Brexit – Implications on Rugby Player Movements

Brexit – remember that topic from the summer of 2016? Well, it’s back and this time it’s all for real.

Recently, the UK’s man in Brussels handed over a letter to Donald Tusk, so signalling the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU.

Prior to the EU referendum last year, theblitzdefence looked at several of the key rugby related risks facing the UK (player movements, flights, safety, health, duty free, sterling strength).  It could be argued the currency risk has already materialised, as travel and expenses in a Euro dominated country will cost you more today than pre-Brexit, but the other issues are still to be decided as part of the official negotiations.

This article will recap what the implications are for player, coach and staff movements for UK based rugby teams.

How does regulations around player movements currently work?

The primary implication for rugby is related to the potential restrictions around player (and also coach, physio and other back room staff) movements.

This is a pretty complicated area, but to simplify matters we can identify several ways a rugby player can legally work as a professional rugby player in the UK:

 (1)    Have a UK passport (this could be gained through a birth place, spouse/long term partner or parent)

(2)    Grandparent route – a grandparent born in the UK gives a player a 5 year ancestry visa

(3)    Have an EU passport (or spouse/long term partner)

(4)    Kolpak player (see explanation below)

(5)    Work visa – these will be granted depending on the level that the player has played at, with the aim to attract the best talent in to roles that can’t be filled by EU nationals.

The first 3 are self-explanatory but the forth category – Kolpak, may need a bit of explaining.

Kolpak players are those with a work permit from countries that have an Association Agreement with the EU – which are the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP countries). These individuals must be treated the same as player from UK or EU and are therefore deemed to be “not  foreign”. A large number of Pacific Island and South Africans have played in the UK utilising this route.

The final category – where access is via a work visa,  includes those from outside the EU who are also non–Kolpak. These are termed “foreign” players and could include Americans, New Zealanders and Australians.

What will happen in the event of Brexit?

When the UK withdraws from the EU and is therefore no longer party to any freedom of movement requirements there are two main potential impacts on UK rugby teams:

  • Players with a non-UK EU passport will not have an automatic right to work in the UK
  • Kolpak players will not have an automatic right to work in the UK, as the UK will no longer be part of the Association Agreements with the ACP countries

An example of the first category of players affected by the change includes Exeter’s Italian international Michele Campagnaro who would not be able to wave his EU passport as he entered Heathrow and automatically be able to ply his trade in the south west.

The same would be true of French players who may prefer the wine and weather on the UK side of the English Channel (not that there are many now but the days of Raphael Ibanez and Phillipe Sella are not that long ago!). Maxime Mermoz at Leicester would fall in to this category.

In reality though we are not talking about huge numbers of players who would be impacted by this change but a number of players (typically Argentinians) use an EU passport as a way to play for a UK team.

Taking this development on a step, it would be interesting to see if the EU nations would reciprocate the UK’s removal of the freedom of movement and apply it to UK citizens. This would mean that UK passport holders would not automatically have the right to right to work in EU countries. Players who fall in to this camp could include Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon) and Toby Flood (Toulouse).

The second category of players – those playing under the Kolpak banner, would also lose the automatic right to play in the UK. This would potentially mean a number of the more high profile signings from the southern hemisphere power houses would be no longer treated as “non-foreign” and would be classed in the same bracket as other “foreign” players. The problem comes because most UK teams play in competitions that have a limit of 2 “foreign” players in a match day squad.

What would happen in reality?

If EU and Kolpak players are now subject to the same visa requirement rules as current “foreign” players, we may find that some players would no longer be permitted a visa given the playing standards would be too stringent for them to be met.

Secondly, if the 2 “foreign” players per match day squad is still applied then a number of “foreign” players would be sitting outside the match day squads. This could lead to more demand for UK qualified players with a drop-off in demand for those from overseas. This could lead to a number of strong overseas players being forced to play in France, Ireland or Italy.

In a cross-border league such as the Pro12 the teams would be subject to vastly different employment laws with respect to non-nationals which could upset the spread of overseas talent.

In reality it could take at least 2 years to agree how the issue of work permits will be dealt with between the UK and the EU, and indeed what – if anything, will replace the current agreements by which KOLPAK players have a right to play in the UK. There may well then be a transitional phase after the 2 years of negotiations, in which we see the new arrangements being gradually phased in.

Any agreement will be subject to political scrutiny though. As an example, one of the main pillars of the Brexit campaign, was to control immigration, therefore would it be acceptable to have work restrictions in sectors such as the service industry but no such protections in the world of rugby?

Another proposal put forward in some political circles is that agreements will be put in place with a number of current and ex-Commonwealth nations, which will smooth the way for the movement of skilled people to a UK free from EU shackles. Given the strong link between the Commonwealth and rugby this could potentially make the path for players to move from the likes of Fiji, New Zealand or Canada even smoother than it is today.

We should have a clearer idea over the next 2 years what the final outcome will be as negotiations proceed, but until then the current uncertainty makes planning difficult for club management and players alike.

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