Denny Solomona controversially left his contract with Rugby League side Castelford to join Rugby Union’s Sale SharksJohnmarfleet

The past month has seen waves made in the world of rugby transfers. Jonny May’s controversial move to Leicester led Premiership clubs to make an alteration to the league’s Code of Conduct, whilst Charles Piutau has become the Premiership’s first million pound player after signing with Bristol for 2018/19. 

Rugby, unlike football, does not have a ‘transfer market’ as such, and players have usually remained with clubs for the entirety of their contract. Yet times are changing and these latest deals are part of a much wider trend. The question is: is rugby on the same path as football and, more importantly, is this something that we should welcome?

Earlier this month, England winger Jonny May left Gloucester to join Leicester as part of a deal which saw Leicester second-row Ed Slater move the other way. When details of the transaction emerged, however, concern spread amongst Premiership clubs. Rather than negotiate a fee to buy out the remainder of May’s contract, Leicester activated a previously unutilised clause in the league’s Code of Conduct which allowed players to move from one club to another for a fixed fee – a sum equivalent to the player's salary either at the new club or at the original club, whichever was higher.

Although May only had one year remaining on his contract with Gloucester, the fear was that this clause could allow clubs to poach players still with any number of years remaining for a nominal amount. As such, the Premiership clubs unanimously voted to close this loophole. The system is now akin to that of association football: any fee to be paid for a player currently under contract is to be negotiated between the two clubs concerned. This doesn’t necessarily mean a great change is going to take place, given that the clause had never previously been used, but it certainly removes the possibility of player ‘poaching’.

This, of course, is good news for clubs. They will be able to negotiate adequate compensation for the loss of their players and to allow them to bring in replacements. Jonny May, for example, is one of the league’s fastest wingers and has scored 9 tries in 27 Tests for England. Having been at Gloucester his entire career, the club will feel aggrieved to have been unable to negotiate a better fee.

"The togetherness and loyalty which are integral to the sport’s values may be diluted if players simply become mercenaries for hire."

It might be less of a good thing for players, though. The loophole may have provided a way for them to move more easily, even if their club wasn’t satisfied financially. The fact is that, under the Premiership’s current salary cap (of £7m per club), there is a risk that players will merely become assets and won’t see any of the money that the clubs are throwing around in the transfer market. Their agents, meanwhile, will be rubbing their hands. If high transfer fees are to become commonplace, the salary cap must change to protect the athletes.

Until very recently players have only tended to move once their existing contract has expired. The RFU regulations state:

“No Club or Constituent Body may directly or indirectly, approach (or accept an approach by or on behalf of) any Player who is under Contract with a Club, Constituent Body or Union to induce or attempt to induce such Player to leave that Club, Constituent Body or Union unless such approach or inducement is made with the written consent of that Club, Constituent Body or Union, or is made in the final six months of the term of that Player’s Contract.”

This provision makes it very clear that contracts are to be respected and must, in part, explain why players do not move all that frequently.

However, the FA has a similar rule:

“the Player may not be approached by any other Club, or Club Official of any other Club, or any person with a view to inducing the Player to leave the Club for which the Player is registered, except with the written permission of that Club.”

Malakai Fekitoa is one of three New Zealand internationals to have moved abroad this summeretgohome1

Although the RFU regulation goes further by stating that clubs must not “accept an approach by or on behalf of” any player, the wording is largely the same. The real difference must therefore lie elsewhere: in the bank. You only have to look at Neymar’s £200m move to PSG this summer to see that the sums involved in football far exceed those in rugby. Money talks, and it is this which incentivises players to break off existing contracts.

And this is why we are witnessing a sea-change in Rugby Union. BT Sport currently have a deal worth an estimated £40m a season with Premiership Rugby to broadcast matches, marking a significant increase in investment. With more money floating around, it is perhaps no surprise that the sanctity of contract is not quite what it once was. Last season, George Ford secured a move from Bath to Leicester despite having time remaining on his Bath contract, whilst Louis Picamoles left Northampton to join Montpellier, with the midlands club receiving compensation rumoured to be in excess of £1m.

Given that Northampton had previously stated that they would not release Picamoles, one must wonder how much the above regulations are being adhered to. In 2016, Denny Solomona controversially left his contract with Rugby League side Castelford to join Rugby Union’s Sale Sharks. As the move was cross-code, it was not bound by the RFU regulations and so Castleford sued Solomona for breach of contract. Although the case looked to be heading for trial, the parties settled in June of this year for approximately £200,000.


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Big money deals have been happening in France for some time, with French giants Toulon and Racing having been particularly spend-thrifty, but Picamoles’ rumoured fee and Piutau’s move to Bristol eclipse all previous transactions. As rugby becomes more commercialised, transfer fees will only rise, and mid-contract transfers may become more common. It is easy to forget that Rugby Union only turned professional in 1995. Trevor Francis became football’s first million pound player in 1979, and football as a business has grown exponentially since then. With more detailed regulation and fixed transfer windows, football has a more advanced transfer market than rugby but, with wages and transfer fees on the rise, rugby is entering a new era.

But is this necessarily a good thing? Certainly it would raise the profile of the sport and encourage more young people to get involved, whilst top players would be delighted at the prospect of earning more. What’s more, if revenues in the league are up, it is only right that this be passed on to the players in the form of increased pay. However, if it becomes too much of a business, there is a risk that we will lose some of what rugby is about. The togetherness and loyalty which are integral to the sport’s values may be diluted if players simply become mercenaries for hire.

Furthermore, we have to look at the sport as a whole. While the elite leagues in England and France are growing in wealth, the Southern Hemisphere is struggling. Having traditionally produced some of the most eye-catching rugby on the planet, Super Rugby is starting to lose more and more players who are moving north to make a better living, whilst the Celtic League (the Pro14) has just introduced two South African former Super Rugby franchises in a bid to boost revenues.

This summer alone has seen All Blacks Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa and Steven Luatua leave New Zealand, while Juan de Jong and Will Skelton (of South Africa and Australia) have both come to the Premiership. And there are many more. The reality is that if the wealth of the north continues to grow at its current rate, the south is going to suffer – they simply cannot compete financially. World Rugby must consider whether this is something they are willing to let happen.

Rugby, then, has a long way to go before it becomes quite like football and, as a professional sport, is very much still in its infancy. Charles Piutau may have become the highest earning rugby player on the planet, but think less Neymar, and more Trevor Francis

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