In an article earlier this week we looked at England Qualified Players (EQPs), what were they and why did they matter to us this season. In this article we’ll look at some of the effects of the EQP bonus on English rugby, whether the scheme is worthwhile and whether the scheme is even legal under EU law.
Some of the apparent effects of the EQP bonus have been on the surface very positive. The rates of EQP in the Aviva Premiership are reported in the press at 71% and as high as they have ever been, many hail this as a great development and you can hardly call it a bad one.
According to Statbunker, the online database, there have been 491 players used this season with 308 of them English, or 62.72%. Why the disparity? The EQP stats are based on how often people play whilst the Statbunker ones are just on total players used. Which suggests that contrary to popular belief English players are actually more likely to be picked than Johnny Foreigner. It is also because players like Jonathan Mills will be counted as Welsh in Statbunker’s numbers but are EQP.
Ten years ago, before the EQP system was in force the number of English players in the league was 271 out of a total of 443, or 61.17. To be at today’s figures of 62% there would only have had to be 6 foreign players replaced by English ones, and for today to be at 2004’s numbers we would have 300 English players, or 8 fewer than today.
|English Players in Premiership|
At a cost to the RFU of approximately £4m p.a. those 8 players are very expensive for little if any benefit to the national side.
The EQP scheme was introduced in 2008 and since its introduction England have won just one 6 Nations and no English club has won the European Cup, with only 3 finalists in 8 years. Before the scheme was introduced English clubs had reached 6 finals in 8 years with 5 victories, the only defeat coming in an all English final.
There is a school of thought that the EQP scheme has stopped rugby following football’s lead of huge numbers of foreign players destroying the national team with France’s rugby side as further evidence; but this ignores a crucial difference between the sports and the nations.
England’s Under 20s have won the past two Junior World Cups and reached a further 3 finals since 2008, France have reached no finals since 2006 when they won the Under 21 competition on home soil, in football England have reached just one European Under 21 final in 30 years.
You cannot simply blame clubs and foreign players in French rugby and English football without looking at the raw materials feeding into the bottom of the professional game. Germany and Spain are home to football leagues just as competitive and almost as rich as England but have better youth set ups that feed greater numbers of domestic players and better national teams, England rugby would be just the same with a higher proportion of domestic players than France no matter the legislation.
So it’s pretty debatable whether the EQP scheme has any effect on the overall level of English players in the league, but what about its effect on individual matches and players?
We saw in 2012 Sale pick a deliberately weakened side in the final round of fixtures to just scrape inside their EQP quota, and just last month Bristol announced in the local press that due to the more stringent EQP demands in the Championship they would also be picking their side based on players’ nationality.
This might seem like a minor effect but fundamentally changes a player's value to their club. As every club, every year, needs to hit the quota there is an upward pressure on wages for EQPs of the right quality.
That is players good enough to play in great sides but not so good that England’s national team requires them for 1/3rd of the season. If you are a player like Matt Mullan who would be a regular international for many nations but is behind 3 fantastic players for England you are a highly valuable commodity locking down 22 of the 330 EQP slots needed to earn approximately £300k.
You might say why is it a problem that English players are given a bit more leverage and a bit more cash in the bank? The problem comes from the Salary Cap, as every extra pound that is extracted by players due to their EQP status comes from another part of the squad, perhaps explaining the decline in European performance over the last 8 years.
Richard Thorpe is a good quality squad player in the Premiership but he is never going to trouble the international selectors; it has emerged recently that he qualifies for Canada and has thrown his hat into the ring with them, gaining 2 caps this autumn.
Why, given it was his only shot at international rugby, did he wait this long? EQP money. His value as a squad player is greatly diminished if he represents Canada and loses his EQP status, so he missed out on the 2011 RWC and possibly dozens of caps.
We are seeing this more and more; Tiziano Pasquali turned down the chance to represent Emerging Italy as losing his EQP status at just 20 years old would damage his chances of progressing into Tigers First XV.
Every year we hear stories like Callum Sheedy or Rory Bartle turning down caps at lower levels that would tie them to a nation. We also saw Ben Morgan turn down an England Saxons cap lest it harm his career, then in Wales with Llanelli.
Legally the EQP scheme may be on dodgy ground too. A ruling from April 2014 regarding Spanish basketball could spell the end of the EQP scheme. To quote the ruling:
"The Spanish Basketball Federation (FEB) and the Spanish Association of Basketball Clubs (ACB) require that teams taking part in their competitions include a minimum number of locally trained players:
EU players who between 13 and 19 years old have been registered with a club member of the FEB for three seasons. Since this condition is more easily met by Spanish players, this is liable to put players from other Member States at a particular disadvantage.And further it states:
EU law forbids indirect discrimination unless the measures pursue a legitimate objective, are appropriate and do not go beyond what is necessary to attain it."
"only the quotas for teams of 11 players in the Liga Endesa and Femenina (36% of total players) could be comparable in terms of restrictive effects to the Home Grown Player UEFA rule (32% of the posts in each team), for which the Commission has not raised objections so far. The quotas for the other competitions and/or configuration of teams, on the contrary, result in reserving for locally trained players between 40% and 88% of the jobs available in the basketball teams."As with Spanish basketball the objectives of the scheme, to ensure the training and recruitment of young players and retain competitiveness of the national set up, are legitimate; but when Ireland and Wales both have fewer than 100 nationals playing weekly how can anyone argue that the EQP scheme does not go beyond what is necessary by being based on each club supplying 15 EQP each week or 180 total positions? Especially when 14 was demeed acceptable just last year?
Professionals are often on contracts with appearance bonuses, whether that is per match or for hitting a certain percentage of matches in a season, or scoring bonuses; missing out on games through nationality means missing out on money. It also affects the quality of the matches in question as sides artificially weaken themselves simply to fulfil the quota.
The EQP scheme was an idea born from good intentions and it is impossible to absolutely refute that it has stopped the percentage of English players dropping to football levels as we simply cannot know for certain what would have happened without it. But given the harm we know it is doing to both individual's careers, the wider game and its potentially illegal status I think it is time to drop the "English Qualified Player" quota and instead focus on producing "England Quality Players".