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The BREXIT referendum, where Great Britain voted to abandon membership in the European Union (EU), will have an impact on foreigners playing professional rugby for English, Welsh, Ulster, and Scottish rugby clubs. In essence, the main effect will occur in professional soccer in the U.K., which has depended on the services of a significantly greater number of non-British players from EU countries.
To understand the upshot of the decision is to remember that citizens of the European Union were free to move from one country to the other in search of work. Further, restrictions on this right to work (e.g.; quotas establishing an arbitrary number of foreign players on sports teams) were determined illegal under these EU guidelines.
The freedom to work also was applicable to countries outside the EU, which signed Association Agreements. In 1995, this arrangement led to the Kolpak Ruling, when Maroš Kolpak, a professional handball player from Slovenia was dropped from his German team because of the league’s ruling that limited clubs from fielding more than two non-EU citizens. (Slovenia was not at that time an EU member, joining, finally in 2004.) The German Court ruled in Kolpak’s favor; he could not be terminated because of the EU agreement.
In the U.K.’s Rugby Union and Rugby League, the Kolpak Ruling allowed clubs to sign players from ACP (Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific) countries, including South Africa, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, that had also signed Association Agreements. The Aviva Premiership counted 72 Kolpak designated players this past season.
Two top clubs, France’s RC Toulonnais and England’s Saracens, were demonstrably successful signing South Africans to their roster. And the Saracens also signed the USA Eagles’ standout Chris Wyles.
In the future, when the UK will not be bound by EU law, professional foreign players in soccer, cricket, and rugby could be severely reduced if there is the reinstatement of national (i.e.; UK) rulings that limit the number of foreign-born players per team.
Many in the UK see the reduction as a positive initiative since it will force the UK to look inward to native talent to fill out spaces once occupied by foreigners. On the negative side is the predicted talent short fall from the absence of these players (especially, in the Premiership, the world’s most lucrative league) who will sign with other non-U.K.-based teams.
Of course, there are many possible permutations on what might happen. The U.K. could allow professional clubs to include many foreign born players without limitation. Also, if Scotland opts out of Great Britain, and joins the EU, it could welcome all. Similarly, if Northern Ireland (Ulster) joins with EU member Ireland, the new Irish entity would also enjoy unlimited players from other EU countries.
Time will tell.