Are NEQPs* welcome or not?
What a coincidence that the first punishments for contravening the eligibility rules for the PWR should be meted out to the two clubs at the bottom of the league, Sale Sharks and Leicester Tigers. They both lose five points.
It just so happens that they have gathered just enough points to stay in the black, with 3 and 4 points respectively.
With a lack of sympathy reminiscent of Premier 15s’ dismissal of Firwood Waterloo, Richmond Wasps and Worcester Warriors from the presence, the board of WP 15s Ltd (coupled with the RFU) says there is no right of appeal. Then it states that ‘This will not impact either club’s league position,’ but doesn’t bother to mention that they lie eighth and ninth out of nine clubs, so can fall no further.
The position reinforces the iniquities of the league’s imbalance. They are all expected to be self- sufficient, but billionaires don’t grow on trees, and multi-national companies are sparing in their largesse.
So we can confidently expect the nine league members to grow yet more uneven in their ambitions and triumphs.
Ignorance of the Law is no Defence before it
It’s all very well saying that every club is aware of the regulations. The question is whether the regulations face the facts of life. Men’s clubs are in desperate straits as they still struggle to face up to the demands of professionalism after 29 years. What hope has elite women’s rugby got as it faces the challenge of the board’s determination to turn the league pro within the next ten years?
Leicester Tigers were one of two clubs allowed into the league this season. If they are punished in this way after only four months of competition, what does it say about the board’s discernment in allowing them to join? How can a club be found worthy of admission in November and punished in February?
Sale Sharks were also late admissions to the then Premier 15s league three years ago. Their stated ambition was to prove a centre of excellence (or a proving ground) for rugby in north-west England. In the event they are found guilty of using too many NEQPs across what is termed Qualification Period 1; a strange term to use for clubs that have already been admitted to the elite league. Presumably it was their fault they could not find players of sufficient quality across the whole of northern England.
And who else?
Plenty of other more firmly established clubs must have come close to being penalised in the same way. An overriding ambition is to promote the well-being of the Red Roses. Quite right. But they tend to be grouped together in a small number of well cushioned clubs. Three of them possess 19 contracted players.
By my own inaccurate calculations 51 out of 135 players in the starting XVs of the four matches of this weekend’s Round Eleven are NEQPs. That is 37%. You can view that proportion as you will: either objectionably high, or perfectly reasonable, or inevitable, since the PWR represents the best quality club rugby available to players worldwide.
It is ironic in the extreme that the official statement ends with the placatory comment: “The RFU and Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR) welcome athletes from all over the world and appreciate everything they bring to rugby in England.”
But Emily Tuttosi (Canada and Exeter Chiefs) had already revealed how she felt about the likely application of this regulation. To her it felt as though she (and her fellows) were not welcome in the midst.
Behind this whole sad business lies the question of selection. Every week head coaches have to sort out who is fit, then who is an EQP. The fact that squads are now allowed to be much larger than in the past (there had been a ceiling of 40), means that top players can’t be sure of getting regular match practice.
Even the odd 20 minutes for a bench player may leave her feeling underused. When a club has two Red Roses competing for the same position (as at Glos-Pury and Saracens), one or the other may come to feel she needs greater opportunities elsewhere. And the occasional blank weekend caused by the withdrawal of Worcester Warriors brings an extra gap in proceedings.
Can we really believe that the RFU and the new board have got their thinking right?
*NEQP = Non-England Qualified Player