Episode 4 in the long-running and very confusing telenovela that is the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship. If the European qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup are series one of Twin Peaks, then we are now at the bit where we see Leland seeing Bob in the mirror. (I think.)*
If you don’t know what’s been going on up to this point, and you have a bit of time, I implore you to
read my posts view episodes 1, 2 and 3 before continuing; otherwise what follows will mean very little.
Ready to proceed? Rather you than me….
World Rugby convened a panel of independent judges to come to a decision on several matters arising from this season’s Rugby Europe Championship (REC). The procedures of both World Rugby (WR) and Rugby Europe (RE) are under the microscope. As you will recall, there was the Romanian refereeing team appointed to officiate at the Belgium-Spain match, where Romania would directly benefit if Spain lost. Then there was a flurry of questions raised about the eligibility of certain players used during the competition, which (confusingly) doubled as World Cup qualifiers. Here is what they decided:
- There was not sufficient evidence that the refereeing in Belgium’s unexpected win over Spain materially affected the result of the match, nor that it was manifestly the result of corruption or bad faith. Therefore, although World Rugby had supported the Spanish rugby union’s demand to replay the match, the panel decided that there were insufficient grounds for doing so.
- When Spain requested, well ahead of the fixture, that the referee be changed in view of the possible implications, Rugby Europe put the burden of decision onto the officials themselves. Naturally, they felt they could still do the job. The panel considered this shifting of responsibility unwise, and recommended that no official be put in a similar position in future.
- The regulations on the eligibility of players for national teams are of utmost importance in preserving the integrity of international competition. Fault and intent do not matter on this issue; breach of these regulations is a strict liability offence. There is an automatic financial penalty for breaking the regulations, but punishments relating to points or places in competition are more complicated, as there are several different precedents from different levels of the sport. It was decided that each team would be deducted the maximum number of points they could have gained from each match in which they used one or more ineligible player; in the REC this number is five.
- Questions were raised about player eligibility for all five countries competing in the World Cup qualifiers. The Russian and German situations were looked into and quickly discarded, leaving three unions under scrutiny: Belgium, Spain and Romania.
- BELGIUM: Five players were used whose connection to the country is sufficient to qualify for a Belgian passport (great-grandparents born in Belgium), but insufficient to make them eligible for its international rugby team. Because Belgium fielded ineligible players in six matches which counted towards Rugby World Cup qualification, they are deducted 30 points from the RWC qualifying competition. The union is fined £25,000 for each ineligible player used, thus £125,000.
- SPAIN: Two players were used who had previously represented France Under-20s at a time when that team was the designated second senior team of the country; therefore they were “captured” for France at that moment and immediately rendered ineligible for any other country. Ineligible players were fielded in eight matches which counted towards RWC qualification, so Spain are deducted 40 points. The union is fined £25,000 for each ineligible player used, thus £50,000.
- ROMANIA: One player, Sione Faka’osilea, who had played in the past for the Tonga Sevens team and was thus “captured” for Tonga according to World Rugby’s rules, featured in six games which counted towards RWC qualification. Romania are thus deducted 30 points in the RWC competition. Since Romania is a member of the World Rugby Council, the fine is much higher than for the other nations: £100,000 per ineligible player used.
All the financial penalties are suspended for five years, so if the unions do not breach the eligibility regulations again before 2023 no money will be paid. This is a blessing to these small rugby countries whose budget would be unable to cope with such an outlay.
The surprisingly readable report is available for download in its entirety here.
Belgium will not appeal the decision: guilty as charged, your honour.
The Spanish federation, FER, is considering an appeal, based on its contention that the French union changed its designated next senior representative team without authorisation. The panel’s report has already dealt with that issue, though, so an appeal would surely be fruitless. Here is the FER’s statement.
The Romanian federation, FRR, will appeal. Their own statement is here. Officials feel that they fulfilled their obligations in “taking all the necessary steps” to secure clearance for Faka’osilea, which is what the regulations rather nebulously require of them. This is why:
- After initially having trouble contacting the Tongan union, they got an email reply stating that the player had not played for the national team or the A-team and was thus OK to play for Romania.
- In the absence of a centralised database of “captured” players, they searched the ESPN statistics database and (sharp intake of breath from librarian) Wikipedia, and found no evidence of Faka’osilea’s having played for Tonga.
- The player himself signed a document declaring that he had not played for the representative side of his country of origin, and that he had not been notified of his capture by the Tongan rugby authorities.
- The FRR had, in a previous case, sent team sheets off to World Rugby for checking, only to be told that they should do so only if there was something unclear.
In their submission to the panel, World Rugby argued that:
- The FRR cannot have, as they are required to do by the regulations, adequately explained the eligibility rules to the player, as he would hardly have forgotten that he had played Sevens for Tonga.
- Proper internet searches would have revealed evidence of his having played for Tonga Sevens.
- The FRR could and should have made inquiries with WR.
- The team sheets mentioned were purely for media propagation, not for administrative checking.
- The Tongan email did not appear to specify that Faka had not played for the national Sevens team.
The Romanians have to show that exceptional circumstances exist in order to have a chance with their appeal. If they can produce the Tongan email exchange, that could seal it one way or the other.
THE KNOCK-ON EFFECTS
So the upshot is that Russia qualify for the World Cup and will play Japan in the opening match. Meanwhile Germany, who this season broke all records as the worst team ever to take part in the REC since its inception in 2000, will go into a one-off playoff against Portugal – a match which had originally been slated for April but will now take place on 9th June, somewhere in Germany. The winners of that game will play two legs against Samoa. The winners of that match-up will go to the World Cup, while the losers go into a four-team repechage tournament in the autumn.
Romanian and Spanish grassroots rugby will inevitably suffer from the teams not appearing in Japan next year. And the controversial boss of the FRR could be in trouble depending on who is eventually fingered as the root cause of the Faka’osilea affair. However, to tell the truth, Romanian rugby is in a pretty poor state anyway, and until mid-February the Spanish were not expecting to qualify, so apocalyptic predictions as to the effect of this judgement are probably exaggerated. Conversely, can any good come out of this farce?
- Rugby Europe will never again allow a situation where the referee is compromised by the appearance or suggestion of bias. We hope.
- The Spanish players who angrily confronted the referee after the defeat in Brussels were punished last month. The two worst offenders received a 36-week and a 43-week ban for physical and verbal abuse of the match official, while three others received 14-week bans for threatening the Romanian. Say no to the soccerisation of rugby!
- The interconnected scandals of the refereeing appointment, the refereeing performance, and the abuse of the referee, are rendered slightly less prominent by the all-devouring player eligibility problem. Admittedly this is only a positive if you squint quite hard.
- Given that the Spanish and Romanian eligibility cases could have been avoided if there were one central source of information on players who have been “captured” by another country, paragraph 58 of the review sows the seed of a Great Idea: “World Rugby might want to consider whether to maintain a database showing players who have been captured by Unions.” Well, duh. It will be complicated and expensive to do, but surely essential now that there are clear precedents to follow: the worms will escape the can.
- Samoa and Canada will be happy to face Germany or Portugal rather than Spain in the World Cup play-offs.
- Russian rugby will get a huge boost from the exposure a World Cup brings. Their clubs are the strongest of Europe’s Tier 2 nations, and now perhaps the national team can kick on too. Rugby fans will enjoy seeing an unfamiliar team at the World Cup (although, admittedly, the Russians did appear in the 2011 edition).
- We can all move on now. Can’t we? Please?
*I really hope there won’t be an equivalent of all those scenes in that lodge in the forest where everyone talks backwards and the dwarf does a weird dance.