How will new regulation impact on Springbok numbers in Premiership?
SPOTLIGHT: While the vagaries of the Premiership salary cap made headlines in recent months, another driver of squad change over the next two seasons could come from a different source.
Instead of clubs just having to worry about getting their squad under the salary cap, they will also have increasingly worry about who their players qualify to play for at Test level.
The introduction of a new England Qualified Players system in 2024 – which has been recently confirmed – will see Premiership rosters altered significantly in the next two seasons.
In a similar fashion to the LNR’s JIFF protocols in France, the new system will regulate how many non-England qualified players (NEQPs) can be selected in any given matchday squad.
As it stands, in the Premiership, a maximum of two foreign players can now be in the matchday 23, at all periods during the season. Given the current makeup of a number of squads, many might wonder if the legislation is being followed at all.
The answer is yes, thanks to the European Court of Justice’s Kolpak ruling, which came into being in 2003. As a result of the ruling; South African, Tongan, Fijian and Samoan players were not classified as overseas players in the context of the Premiership’s squad rules.
There was also the Bosman ruling to consider, which effectively meant any EU national has the same rights as any ‘local’ worker and therefore cannot be defined as a foreigner. Basically put, players from the likes of Ireland, Italy or France were all considered local in the context of professional rugby.
That changed in January 2021 as a result of Brexit, and now the league are amending the rules to reflect the UK’s positioning outside of the EU.
As such, the Premiership has created an interim period for clubs to get their house in order, in which players ‘who are or would have been classified as a Non-Foreign prior to 1 January 2021 will retain such Non-Foreign classification until the end of the 2023-24 season.’
While the exact details under the Professional Game Agreement (PGA) are still being ironed out, it is likely that clubs will be obliged to have a minimum of 15 EQPs in each match-day squad from August 2024.
The ruling, which is still relatively generous in terms of how many none EQP each squad can support, will affect some sides far more than others. While one Prem side may need to make next to no adjustment, others will have to consider culling some of their none EQPs over the next 24 months or so.
For example, under the new ruling, Sale Sharks’ matchday squad for this weekend’s Gallagher Premiership game with Saracens contained 13 EQPs, two less than the new cap will allow in 2024.
One side that could be significantly affected is London Irish. As a snapshot example, London Irish’s 23 for their derby with Harlequins has just nine EQPs, well short of the 15 needed in two years’ time.
In stark contrast, Bath’s side that will face Exeter Chiefs today has 19 EQPs. Similarly, Harlequins’ side for their game with London Irish has 18 EQPs, comfortably over the minimum that will be needed.
According to Premiership Rugby Ltd, the level of EQPs in the league has been ‘fairly consistent’ since its inception and currently stands at ‘approximately 70 percent’. That equates to about 200 English players playing every weekend in the competition.
The extent of the effect on the player market is yet to be seen, but it could theoretically lower the price of overseas players over time. Anecdotally, in France where the JIFFs rules are in place, French-qualified players fetch an increased premium with clubs eager to meet JIFF regs.
It could also stem the tide of South African players making a career for themselves in the Premiership. Currently, about 12 per cent of the league’s players hail from the Rainbow Nation.
One recruiter who spoke to RugbyPass believes the new system will give clubs an increased incentive to upscale their academy production lines, while simultaneously leading to more non-Kolpak players being recruited from the likes of New Zealand and Australia.
“It will definitely put an onus on smart domestic recruitment but it was also put a lot more pressure on academies. Not just the academies to produce homegrown players, but pathways that academies have in place to produce those players and make sure they are ready to play at Premiership level, which is something that English clubs have varied in strength at doing over the years.
“It looks like there will no longer be a foreign player, non-foreign player definition, so for recruiters, instead of thinking ‘Right, I can load my squad with Kolpak players from South Africa, or Fiji, or Samoa or Tonga, you are a little bit more open in terms of what you can do recruitment wise, from New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and America, countries like that.
“At the moment, all those players would be deemed foreign, unless you can get them into that non-foreign category. A lot of Kiwi or Aussie players come over with Samoan, Tongan or Fijian passports for example.
“The fact they are removing that, and that you’ll just have EQP and none-EQP means you’ll probably have a little more flexibility in terms of your recruitment.”
By Ian Cameron, RugbyPass