Saturday 23 February 2019

Neil Francis: 'Why Champions Cup knockout stage may be turned on its head by Brexit chaos'

No-deal UK exit from the EU would raise all sorts of issues around the eligibility of players

Chris Farrell, supported by Conor Murray, celebrates after scoring a try for Munster despite the efforts of Senitiki Nayalo, one of Edinburgh’s six Kolpak players. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Chris Farrell, supported by Conor Murray, celebrates after scoring a try for Munster despite the efforts of Senitiki Nayalo, one of Edinburgh’s six Kolpak players. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Nobody is saying it but the two Irish superpowers did rather well in the Champions Cup draw. Edinburgh and Ulster are by a distance the two weakest sides in the competition.

If Leinster and Munster don't progress, I think we would have to check the lasagne in the team hotel after the match.

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If Munster do not beat Edinburgh at Murrayfield then they have no business being in the business end of this competition. With a full deck they would then have a really good chance of overcoming Saracens.

However, Munster may have an unexpected edge to help them from the March 30 onwards.

As usual, the juiciest stories all come from across the ditch in relation to the quarter-finals. The last-eight matches take place on the weekend of March 29, 2019.

However, four of the eight teams may be facing a new team selection challenge due to Brexit, especially a no-deal version, unless their match is scheduled to be played on March 29.

The eligibility of players' rules for the 2018/2019 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 citizen 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 (ECJ) made a ruling in favour of Maroš Kolpak, a Slovak handball player.

The ECJ 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 may have to review their squad for the quarter-finals and ensure that they have the required number of front-row players, for example, who are European citizens.

The European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) rules for the Champions Cup insist that each club must nominate a squad of up to 41 players before midday on September 20, 2018.

Only three additional players may be registered during the pool stage and a further three may be registered in the knockout stage by noon on March 14, 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 options 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 are a slight anomaly as they are 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 are in the UK. It remains to be seen whether or not EPCR deem Ulster to be a UK club or an Irish club.

Nevertheless, Ulster do not appear to be as reliant on the Kolpak rule for their players and may not have to get a decision on this question by March 14.

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

Governing

Not one governing or regulatory body can tell us right now what will happen for certain with Brexit when March 30 comes around.

There are 30 South Sea Islanders playing in the Gallagher Premiership and 28 South Africans who all will become ineligible to play in Europe because of Brexit.

Of the British teams left, Saracens have seven, Edinburgh have six and Glasgow have three players who rely on the Cotonou Agreement to play in the European competition.

Nobody knows what will happen - but like everything connected to the Brexit debacle, it is a mess.

One thing I do see happening is the Premiership falling further behind but, conversely, the England international side should get stronger because English players will now fill the void - which, if I am not wrong, is one of the reasons why the English voted for Brexit in the first place.

Written in conjunction with Anne O'Connell of AOC Solicitors

Irish Independent

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