Wednesday, 7 February 2007

RFL explores import reduction

The recent announcement from the RFL that Super League clubs are looking at ways of reducing the number of foreign imports in the game cast the spotlight on what is often a controversial and complicated topic.

The high number of overseas players is the most frequently cited reason for the standard and intensity of the Super League and lower grade competitions falling below that of the NRL and its comparative lower grade competitions. This consequently reflects in the long-term failure of British teams to compete effectively with Australia and New Zealand on the international stage. The logic is that players who weren’t considered good enough for the NRL and related competitions, come to the UK and block the career progression of young, UK developed players, which eventually feeds through to senior player pool available for selection by British representative teams.

There is undoubtedly truth in this, but a closer analysis would probably suggest player development, competitive player numbers and most importantly commercial factors all playing a significant part too.

The commercial factors stack-up like this:
- Importing a player, even one of limited ability, is cheaper in the short-term than developing a player from scratch.
- Imports can be brought in with more competitive experience than an untested home-grown junior player, which is important not only for clubs trying to avoid relegation, but also clubs pushing for honours.
- Imports will often play for relatively less than a home-grown player due to tax loopholes and favourable exchange rates.

For clubs like those in London and other “expansion” areas the problems can be particularly acute. It is only in the last ten years that the RFL has really come to value development efforts in expansion areas, which means that the volume and quality of players available locally is only now beginning to catch-up with heartland areas. The higher cost of living in the South East of England acts as a disincentive for professional players based in those traditional heartlands as in no little part does parochialism. Perversely this means that it can be easier and cheaper to pick up a decent, but unspectacular, player from the other side of the world than it is to get one to relocate 200 miles.

The move to franchises and end to automatic promotion and relegation to Super League has been seen by some as the panacea that will reduce reliance on imports, but such speculation may be hasty. Whilst the end of automatic relegation will ease the reluctance of clubs to use untested or inexperienced players, it won’t remove the desire to challenge for honours nor the other commercial factors outlined above.

As laudable as the idea of cutting down on imports may be there are some very real legal hurdles that suggest it to be little more than hot air. European Employment law designed to prevent discriminatory practices and facilitate the free movement of labour have essentially rendered the existing import quota effectively meaningless and any attempt to strengthen that existing agreement, or create a new one, will be extremely difficult. Some have argued that the law needs to be challenged, but it is unlikely that any European sports body currently has the financial muscle to attempt this, let alone the RFL or any of its constituents.

The consensus seems to be that if imports are really to be cut there will have to be some creative thinking on the part of the RFL and the clubs to find ways forward that reward player development, whilst avoiding a collision course with the law.

1 comment:

DRH said...

The ideas currently being discussed seem to be based around a requirement to have a certain percentage of any match day 17 having come through a club's academy and salary cap dispensations for players not in the official 25 man squad.

Whether this will lead to a stockpiling of young players by the top clubs we will see.

Unfortunately at present most clubs cannot see beyong their own success (whether that be winning trophies or just avoiding relegation). Only when the SL clubs (and indeed NL clubs) see that International success will improve the standing of the game of RL in the country resulting in increased attendances and sponsorship/tv revenues will they start to work for the common good rather than short-term self interest. Franchises will help but every team has to stick to whatever is agreed both to the letter and the spirit of the agreement!