Rugby World examines the possible outcomes should the UK vote to leave the EU next month

This summer’s tours reach their climax on Saturday 25 June, but two days earlier it will be politicians rather than rugby fans eagerly awaiting a result.

The people of Britain head to the polls on 23 June to vote in the referendum to decide whether the UK should remain part of the European Union. We’ve all seen the headlines about the impact Brexit (should the UK vote to leave) could have on security, trade and so on, but Rugby World has decided to look at what it could mean for rugby, and particularly overseas signings, on these shores.

How things work now

There are three ways overseas players looking to join a club in the UK can get a work permit to play here professionally:

  1. They or their spouse/long-term partner have an EU passport. This includes those who have a parent born in the UK as that qualifies them for a UK passport – Gareth Anscombe, whose mother was born in Wales, for example.

    Gareth Anscombe

    Welsh blood: Gareth Anscombe’s mum, Tracy, was born in Cardiff. Photo: Getty Images

  2. They or their spouse/long-term partner have a grandparent who was born in the UK, which qualifies them for a five-year ancestry visa. This is how Jimmy Gopperth came over when he joined Newcastle.
  3. They have started at least one Test in the previous 15 months for either a Tier One or Tier Two country that is not part of the EU – New Zealand or Georgia for example. For players from outside the top two tiers, the player must have played a minimum of ten Internationals and started at least one Test in the previous 15 months. They need to meet these requirements to be endorsed by the governing body (RFU, SRU or WRU) of the club offering the contract, which makes them eligible for a Tier 2 Sportsperson (long-term deal) or Tier 5 (maximum 12-month deal) work visa.

It is also worth noting that just as players from the EU and European Economic Area (EEA), which includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, all have equal rights, those from a number of other countries cannot be discriminated against due to the Cotonou Agreement.

This is a treaty between the EU and Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP countries). Without going into the details of the agreement itself, the important thing to note from a rugby perspective is that countries like South Africa, Namibia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are part of it. Therefore rugby players from those countries are treated the same as those from the UK and the EU. Therefore they do not count as a ‘foreign player’ when named in a squad.

Schalk Burger

Bok in: South African Schalk Burger joins Saracens next season and will be classed as a ‘non-foreign player’ under the Cotonou ruling. Photo: Getty Images

The Aviva Premiership, Guinness Pro12 and European competitions have a limit of just two foreign players in a match-day 23. These could be, say, a Canadian or a New Zealander without an EU passport, while a Fijian would count as a ‘non-foreign player’ because he falls under the Cotonou umbrella.

What could change?

Even if the UK were to vote to leave the EU there are still a number of unknowns. It would take two years to leave the Union for a start, so it’s not as if any changes would be made before the start of next season.

Then it will depend which agreements the Government decides to sign up to. Norway, for example, is not part of the EU but is part of the EEA. To be part of the EEA a country has to join the European Free Trade Association and that means they would also be bound by EU laws concerning free movement.

Alternatively, the UK could negotiate a bilateral trade agreement where they would keep access to the free market and bypass some EU laws – how easy this would be is at the heart of the stay/leave argument.

Akapusi Qera

Channel crosser: Montpellier’s Akapusi Qera played for Gloucester before moving to France. Photo: Getty Images

If there wasn’t free movement, it would mean players arriving from overseas would now need a UK passport rather than one from any EU country and European players without a UK passport would need to fulfil the same requirements as other foreign players in terms of playing at least one Test in the past 15 months.

Let’s imagine the UK has not been part of the EU for a few years and apply those rules to a couple of recent signings. Louis Picamoles would still fit the brief for Northampton given that he’s played for France this season but Italy-born prop Derrick Appiah, who joined Worcester in February 2015, would not have been able to make the move because he has not played for Italy at Test level.

Of most significance, however, is the foreign player ruling. If teams continued to be limited to just two foreign players in their match-day 23s, there would be significant changes to squads. EU and Cotonou Agreement players would no longer be classed as ‘non-foreign’ players so clubs would be more likely to sign UK players than a Pacific Islander, for example. There simply wouldn’t be room in squads for more than a handful of overseas signings because they couldn’t all be selected each week.

As for the movement of players to France, this wouldn’t change – apart from a little more paperwork! If a player is offered a contract with a French club it comes with a work permit – if they are good enough to be given a deal, they are deemed worthy of a work permit. So while players in the UK wanting to move to France would now have to fill out the same forms as, say, a New Zealander rather than a more seamless move enabled under EU regulations, there would be no barriers to such a switch.

Boris Johnson

In or out? Boris Johnson, here with the Webb Ellis Cup, is in favour of leaving the EU. Photo: Getty Images

So if Britain left the EU, would overseas players be even more likely to head to France than the UK? Possibly. And that would certainly be a concern for clubs in terms of being competitive in the European competitions. Could it hurt the progress of the Pacific Islands teams as less spots would be available in the squads of UK clubs? Maybe. In contrast, it could also lead to the development of more homegrown talent.

However, it should also be said that the rule concerning two foreign players in a match-day 23 is governed by the competitions themselves so the RFU, EPCR and so on could easily amend it to take into consideration the change in status of those who currently fall under the EU and Cotonou umbrellas.

It seems that much of the Brexit debate is still up in the air as so little is known of what the UK’s relationship with Europe would look like should the vote on 23 June fall in favour of the leave campaign. Still, as with all areas of the debate, the possible ramifications for rugby provide food for thought.

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