A major Issue for English Rugby causes Ructions

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This controversial matter has hung around the elite league’s neck since its very first season in 2017.

Feelings run high. Just what is the league really about? Who is it really intended to benefit?
WP15 Ltd, in charge of the PWR, now comes a step closer to grasping the nettle: to
penalise clubs who field more than a given number of NEQPs (Non-England Qualified
Players), contrary to regulations.

When it was still Tyrrell’s Premier 15s, one of its prime professed aims was the advancement of
the England team. But even that can be helped in two ways: either by excluding all NEQPs, to
give the l;argest possible number of EQPs the chance of putting their case; or by inviting the
cream of overseas and Celtic talent to provide the strongest possible competition.

You can easily imagine who supports that second view: precisely those clubs who are heavily
dependent on NEQPs. All nine clubs remaining in the league have numbers of them, but some far
more than others. Sale Sharks are said to be in negotiations with the RFU and WP15 about their
present standing.

Since Sharks are the sole surviving northern club, it would be counter-productive in the extreme for them to suffer a penalty of whatever form. An initial objective of the league was to provide a wide geographical spread. That has long since been thrown out of the window. Sale’s reliance on NEQPs throws into doubt claims of all the rugby excellence to be found up north. Its very best have long since moved south: Zoe Aldcroft, Abbie Ward, Tatyana Heard, Cath O’Donnell, Ellie Kildunne, Holly Aitchison, Sarah Beckett, for example.

The noisiest of the complainants are Exeter Chiefs.

Now Chiefs’ supporters make claims like this, from @PamSpencer15058:
cap.

When Susie Appleby assembled her squad for 2020, she tried to get Red Roses to accept
invitations, but none proved willing – a World Cup was imminent, they wanted stability and
security – so she looked abroad and signed up capped players especially from the New World.

Over the first three years there might be as few as three EQPs in the starting 15 (Leitch, Doidge,
Jefferies).

‘Chiefs have developed some amazing young English talent with the help of the international
players that helped create the team’.

Yes, one half of Chiefs’ strategy was to promote the careers of young players from Devon and
Cornwall. Till then, they had to travel at least as far as Bristol to find a Premier 15s club.

But Spencer’s argument is contradicted by that tiny number of EQPs I’ve mentioned. And Chiefs
have not been a hothouse for breeding Red Roses. Their first was Claudia Macdonald, only after
DMP and Wasps’ demise; their second, Maisy Allen in 2023, was their first home-grown England
Glenn Redler (@4chords) comments: ‘[the PWR] should be trying to become the best league it can
be, with the best players from around the world.’

It is already achieving that first aim, but is the second one equally necessary? If all the best
players are confined to performing in one country, what happens to the rest? How do they thrive?
A familiar name from the recent past, Garnet Mackinder, comments: I’m all for the opportunities
for young English talent, great to see some new names on the team sheet! I understand both sides of the argument, but 10 overseas players in a squad seems reasonable and will hopefully
encourage other nations to invest in their leagues.’

Returning home to host

I see that as the thin end of the wedge. Ten seems very generous.

That last point is crucial. Are other national leagues being encouraged? I fear the answer is no. It
would need all or most of those leading NEQPs to return to their native heath to help (re-)establish
worthwhile leagues and inspire a younger generation.

And is ten a reasonable number of NEQPs? At once my mind turns to the men’s football Premiership, whose clubs are owned, coached and staffed largely by foreigners.

Are the many Celtic players in the PWR helping to grow leagues in their home countries? No. The
Celtic Challenge has had to be formed with the help of World Rugby as a substitute.

When people express the wish for the PWR to be ‘the best league in the world’, what competition
does it have? Super Aupiki (four franchises), Elite 1 (France), and?

That in itself seems to me the strongest argument for not continuing to increase its standing. It is
merely sapping the strength of those other leagues. Some that are under grave pressure include
the Ireland’s AIL, the reformed Serie A in Italy, the leagues below the Super Aupiki in NZ, SuperW
in Australia, Women’s Premier League (USA) – the list goes on.

An Alternative Opinion

Here are contrary views from very different perspectives. First from @TheStroBro in Tempe,
Arizona: ‘Compliance with this is interesting. Shouldn’t be an average, should be a hard stop and
the competitions department should kick back a roster if it doesn’t meet the EQP requirement
when it is submitted.’

Then from a more familiar figure, Graham Smith, former coach of the Red Roses:. He says simply:
‘Teams have to manage their squads. The registrations are clear. But all the clubs knew what the
rule was; and given that RFU contribute to the funding of the competition it seems a reasonable
stipulation’.

@Bealsfive says: ‘Personally, I support this. We have a host of young talent pushing their way into
PWR squads and we want to support a strong and sustainable growth pathway for our youth.’
You don’t have to look far to find promising young England players (U20s and U18s) being
excluded from squads in favour of NEQPs.

The RFU’s response

“The England Qualified Player scheme has the full support of both the RFU and Premiership
Women’s Rugby as part of our partnership to support the ambitions of the Red Roses, especially
with the Women’s Rugby World Cup taking place in 2025 but we have also been open with other
countries to allow access for their players into PWR to help support their development as they
look to professionalise their own domestic leagues.

That last point opens another can of worms: where in the world is a fully professional women’s
league likely to succeed?

Summary

WP15 Ltd has been treading water, as if fearful of getting out of their depth. They had issued
warnings of unnamed penalties, but hesitated to apply them. They would claim that they were
taking soundings, to see how clubs and players felt about the issue.

They are in turn responsible to the RFU, which has its own agenda. It is spending vast sums on
the Red Roses, who are repaying them by their dominant showing on the world stage.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that the RFU is correct on prioritising the rights of English
players to play in the elite English league. Other players are certainly welcome, but not in
unrestricted numbers.

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