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NRL Mailbox: Mid-season player transfers

NRL Wed, Mar 14, 2012 - 7:42 AM

In light of the recent announcement about the Dragons' Beau Scott signing with the Knights, we thought we would clarify some of the commonly raised questions sent through by our fans in relation to player transfers.

What are the rules around the NRL’s current player transfer system?

The anti-tampering (or ‘player transfer’) rules look at when a club can approach a player from another team and relate to the decision a player will make when he comes off contract (not to a player breaking his existing agreement, which is prohibited and can involve serious legal penalty).

The aim of these rules is to ensure that a player’s existing team has the final right to negotiate the player’s future but the rules don’t restrict when a club can negotiate with a player for his services in the next contract period.

They do however restrict when a new agreement can be registered as the Australian Rugby League Commission won’t register any agreement between the player and a proposed new club until after Round 13 of the final year of the player’s existing contract.

The only exception to this is where the player’s original club agrees in writing that it has had ample opportunity to consider and match the offer and where it is prepared to allow the contract registration.

The benefit of delaying the registration of any contract until after Round 13 of the final year of a player’s current term is that it ensures that the player’s current team can negotiate an offer up until that point.

Before this system was in place, the game had a system where a player couldn’t negotiate with another club until after June 30 of the final year of his current contract (unless written permission had been provided to the contrary). The system was changed because it wasn’t possible to effectively police – there was the difficulty of differentiating between a ‘negotiation’ from an expression of interest or a simple conversation (in a world where player managers represent multiple players among multiple clubs) which meant there was very little transparency over negotiations.

The speculation about secret conversations and third party meetings created significant negative publicity and a loss of faith in the effectiveness of the rules themselves. This problem was highlighted by the number of players and clubs who announced contract signings on July 1 (the day after the old deadline) when there had already been months of speculation before this date that secret talks had been underway.

The system we use means that the negotiation process is at least transparent and reduces the uncertainty fans and clubs experience through artificial deadlines. In saying that, ARLC Chief Executive David Gallop has always maintained that the game is prepared to look at alternate systems and a number have been examined.

Why not have a transfer window at the end of the year where all contracts are negotiated in one month?

The first issue with a transfer window is policing negotiations. As with the old June 30 deadline, it is hard to monitor every private conversation and most agreements are still likely be done secretly in advance of that window.

The second is that players and clubs alike only have a brief period between one season and the next and players have argued that a post-season trading window does not give them enough time to prepare.

Why not have it during the Finals?

Players and clubs have argued that this period is also too late in the season. The added complication is that the most sought-after players in the game are still playing in this period and the clubs that are playing are focusing on the biggest games of the year.

Fans of those teams would be outraged to see a trading window disrupt such a period. The other issue of course remains the ability to enforce the window in the first place.

What about a draft?

A draft operates on the basis of the team that finished lowest on the competition table one year having first option on the services of the best available players.

For the most part drafts are used by sports where development programs are the responsibility of the governing body rather than individual clubs.

While there are attractions to a draft, rugby league prides itself on the basis of local kids becoming local heroes.

The idea of an Andrew Johns, Steve Menzies, Luke Lewis or Ben Creagh rising through their community and club programs to represent their district is fundamental to the fabric of rugby league.

Rugby league’s existing ‘pathways’ systems through the Toyota Cup and junior representative programs would be severely impacted by a draft.

A draft means that all ‘new’ players are distributed on a priority basis to the most ‘needy team’. This can, and has in some competitions, lead to claims that teams that are out of finals contention late in a season will be less competitive because of the ‘attraction’ of finishing in last place.

Rugby league, unlike other sports that do feature a draft, has a competitor in rugby union that is competing from the same talent pool of players in the same markets. Rugby union does not maintain a draft and would be in a position to leverage this fact with players who find themselves drafted away from their preferred areas.

The other consideration with a draft is the ability for it to withstand legal challenge. The NSWRL implemented both an ‘internal’ and an ‘external’ draft in 1990 for the 1991 season.

The draft system was challenged by the Players’ Association. The Federal Court found in favour of the NSWRL in the first instance but this was overturned on appeal to the Full Bench of the Federal Court.

The NSWRL sought special leave to appeal to the High Court but this was refused. The Internal Draft was ruled to be an unreasonable restraint of trade (no firm ruling was made on the external draft).

The decision was pursued to the High Court which refused any further appeal. It doesn’t mean that all drafts would fail such a test but it is widely accepted that to survive a court challenge a draft would require the support of the players.

How does the AFL have one?

The AFL draft is supported by its Players’ Association and can be argued to have been proven to be a ‘reasonable restraint’ of trade.

It has slightly different rules to the original NSWRL draft but there is no guarantee that it would survive a challenge were a player to contest the draft.

The support of the Players’ Association is widely regarded as being crucial to the draft remaining in place. It is worth noting that the issue of free agency (where players have greater freedom in moving between clubs) is an increasing focal point in AFL.

Speculation about clubs reaching agreements with players behind the scenes for the following seasons is also increasing in Melbourne media.

Would our players support a draft?

This is a matter for discussion within a Collective Bargaining process but in discussions in the past our players have expressed opposition to a draft being introduced.

What about the external draft?

An external draft regulates those players who are not already in the competition (as opposed to an internal draft which regulates current players). While it hasn’t been ruled as a restraint of trade it can restrict the ability for players to rise through their districts or regions to a preferred local team and would remain open to legal challenge.