Friday, July 06, 2007

If You Think Sheffield United Have Been Treated Unfairly…

…Then spare a thought for poor Castleford Tigers. Cas, as they are known by Rugby League aficionados, were relegated from the Super League at the end of last season, after Wigan Warriors made an amazing comeback to win nine of their last 11 games to finish three points above Cas.

This winning streak followed the remarkable signing of Great Britain prop Stuart Fielden, who like former Great Britain coach Brian Noble, decided to leave the relative safety of Bradford Bulls to join a club adrift at the bottom of the table (not counting Catalans Dragons, who as newbies, were exempt from relegation). Perhaps the move had something to do with the ‘much bigger salary’ that Fielden claimed he had been offered.

At the time, Wigan - in their own words - ‘responded angrily’ to suggestions from two other clubs that they might have breached Rugby League’s salary cap, which at the time stood at £1.7 million. A new system based on Australia’s NRL Premiership has since been implemented.

However Wigan’s anger will pale in comparison to Cas’ fury this morning, having learned that the Rugby Football League (RFL) has charged Wigan with breaching the salary cap for the second season running – they were docked two points for breaching the salary cap in 2005.

Cas were one of the clubs that Wigan ‘responded angrily’ to last season and following debate, the RFL increased the minimum and maximum points penalties for salary cap breaches to four and 12 points respectively. Bear in mind that Wigan were just three points ahead of Castleford last season.

Although the RFL announced changes to its salary cap rules in June to make points deductions ‘live’ - i.e. apply during the current season - this system was not in place for the 2006 season, so any points deductions are likely to apply this season, which will not do Cas any good at all. The club told The Guardian that legal action was not its ‘preferred choice’, and said that talks with the RFL would be sought.

The conspiracy arguments I have heard include: Wigan have played the system as they knew that the points deduction would not apply until next season; the RFL allowed the Fielden transfer to go ahead because they were terrified that one of their biggest clubs would go down; the RFL would not have allowed the transfer if Fielden had gone to a smaller club. All or none may be true.

Are we now entering a phase where every painful relegation in UK sport will be challenged through the courts? This is a real possibility, which worries sporting organisations, as previously reported by World Sports Law Report. Cases such as this, which appear blatantly unfair, do not help sport’s argument that it should be free to regulate its own affairs and illustrate why the European Commission is keen to define sport’s position within EU law, which it will do in a soon-to-be-announced White Paper on Sport.

Full marks to those who sensed a sales pitch coming. Guess what? World Sports Law Report is organising a conference to address all of these issues on Tuesday 10 July. For more information, click here.

Andy Brown



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