By Ted Powell, Tom Barnard and Naomi Findlay

On 31 December 2020, the final whistle was blown on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). Now Brexit is complete, we have a clearer picture of how it might affect professional, semi-professional and amateur rugby in the UK. In this article, we tackle the key changes that clubs and individuals involved in rugby in the UK should be aware of in relation to players and staff from EU nations.

Current EU players and staff

EU Settlement Scheme

EU nationals no longer have freedom of movement, which means they cannot freely work in the UK. Professional, semi-professional and amateur rugby clubs are all likely to have existing players and staff that are EU nationals. Any players and staff from the EU will need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme by 30 June 2021 in order to be allowed to stay in the UK.

In order to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, the player or staff member must have started living in the UK by 11pm on 31 December 2020. If the player or staff member has been living in the UK for more than five years, they should apply for settled status. If they have been living in the UK for less than five years, they can apply for pre-settled status. To apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, the player or staff member will need to fill in a form online, via post or by using a smartphone app.

It’s important for clubs at all levels to identify which of their players and staff are EU nationals, and will therefore need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme. Clubs should also remain aware that their EU nationals must apply to the scheme by 30 June 2021. However, clubs should be careful when checking whether their players and staff have applied to the scheme as treating European players and staff differently to other members of the club, or pressurising them to apply for settled status, could constitute discrimination.

Fielding Foreign Players

In the Premiership, a club may not have more than two foreign players in the match day squad of 23 at any one time. Foreign players are currently classed as players which:

  • do not have the right to freedom of movement within the EU under EU law, the European Economic Area (EEA) or equivalent rights under an international agreement;
  • are not eligible to represent the national representative team of a country within the EU or EEA; or
  • have not been selected for the England Senior XV, Next Senior XV or U20 XV or England’s National 7s.

Significantly, the restrictions confirm that, following Brexit, the status quo will prevail for the 2020-2021 season. This means that players from the UK will continue to be classed as non-foreign players and fall outside the restrictions, despite the UK no-longer being a member of the EU or EEA.

In addition, the definition of non-foreign players also means that Premiership players who are EU nationals will not be classed as foreign players and, as a result, they will not fall under the Premiership restrictions on fielding foreign players. Similarly, players from countries such as South Africa, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga will continue to fall outside the foreign player restrictions. Players from these nations, sometimes referred to as “Kolpak” players , are entitled to equivalent rights to the freedom of movement within the EU.

It’s important to note that current regulations are in force until the end of the 2020-2021 season. It’s likely that the RFU will amend the foreign player restrictions at the end of this season. Clubs should monitor this closely and ensure compliance with any changes to the restrictions that the RFU make.

New EU players – Premiership and Championship 

Governing Body Endorsement

From the 1 January 2021, clubs are no longer able to freely sign EU players and non-playing staff, such as coaches. In contrast, new EU players and staff, along with all other foreign players and staff, will need to obtain a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from the RFU. Once the GBE is obtained, the player or staff member may apply for a visa to play for a club in the UK. 

There are two categories of visas which enable players and non-playing staff to enter the UK and work in a professional capacity for a club in the Premiership and Championship of the men’s game and the Premiership of the women’s game. These are:

  • Tier 2 (Sportsperson). These are granted for an initial period of three years or the length of the contract, whichever is the shorter period. These can be extended for up to three years; and
  • Temporary Tier 5 (Temporary Worker) Creative and Sporting. These are granted for up to 12 months or the length of the contract, whichever is the shorter period.

In relation to players, the player must fall into one of the requirements set out by the RFU in order to be granted a GBE. The requirements are fairly detailed and should be considered in full by clubs.

In short, a foreign player in the men’s game will be granted a GBE if they have represented one of the 10 tier 1 countries in at least one international match in the 24 months prior to the application. These countries include New Zealand, Argentina and Australia.

In relation to tier two and three nations, a foreign player must have played more international matches or a combination of international and domestic matches in a top-ranked domestic competition. 

Finally, a player can qualify without international experience if they have played 75% of the fixtures in a top-ranked competition over 24 months.

Notably, exclusions from selection due to injury, suspension, international duty or serious illness, bereavement or family crisis will be taken into account when applying the requirements. This implies that there may be some discretion shown if a regular international has not been able to represent his country recently due to, for example, a serious long term injury. In addition, when calculating the player’s appearance percentage, games for which the player was unavailable for selection are to be excluded.

There are separate requirements for a Director of Rugby/ Head Coach, Assistant Coach/ Skills Coach and Head of Performance.

In the women’s game, the requirements are largely the same but relate to different national teams and leagues.  A  foreign player will be granted a GBE if they have represented one of 10 listed countries in at least one international match in the 24 months prior to the application. These countries include the Six Nations teams along with Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand.

In relation to other nations, such as South Africa and Hong Kong, a foreign player must have played more international matches or a combination of international and domestic matches in the English, French or New Zealand domestic competitions over 24 months. Alternatively, a player can qualify without international experience if they have played 75% of the fixtures in the competitions listed above.

Key Considerations

It will be easier to obtain a GBE for players who have recently played for their national team and/ or have consistently been selected for a club playing in a major league competition. It may be more difficult to obtain a GBE for players who are yet to be selected for their country or break into their club’s first team.

It’s important for clubs to have an awareness of the GBE requirements when scouting potential foreign players to sign. Players from major European rugby playing nations, such as Ireland, France and Italy, will now have to meet the conditions discussed above. Clubs should ensure that the visa requirements are fully complied with before a foreign player joins them.

Clubs should also collect substantial evidence setting out details of players’ injuries, suspensions or other circumstances that forced them to miss fixtures. The RFU will consider this information when deciding whether to grant a GBE.

Clubs should also monitor the GBE requirements and be aware of any changes the RFU make to them. Significantly, World Rugby are considering removing the tier system for international teams. Should this happen, the GBE requirements would need to be amended accordingly.

New EU players – All other clubs

The GBE system only applies to players joining Premiership and Championship clubs in the men’s game and Premiership clubs in the women’s game. Players joining all other clubs will have to apply for another form of visa issued by the UK.

One option is the Skilled Worker visa. In order to be eligible, players seeking to be employed by organisations in the UK, including rugby clubs, must score points by meeting requirements under the new immigration rules. In total, 70 points are needed and certain requirements are mandatory. In addition, the applicant must be paid at least £20,480 in order for a visa to be granted. The table below sets out the points system, and lists the requirements which are mandatory.

Criteria 

Mandatory/Tradeable

Points

Offer of job by approved sponsor

Mandatory

20

Job at appropriate skill level

Mandatory

20

Speaks English at required level

Mandatory

10

Salary of £20,480 to £23,039 or at least 80% of the going rate for the profession (whichever is higher)

Tradeable

0

Salary of £23,040 to £25,599 or at least 90% of the going rate for the profession (whichever is higher)

Tradeable

10

Salary of £25,600 or above or at least the going rate for the profession (whichever is higher)

Tradeable

20

Job in a shortage occupation as designated by the Migration Advisory Committee

Tradeable

20

Education qualification: PhD in a subject relevant to the job

Tradeable

10

Education qualification: PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job

Tradeable

20

An offer of a job at an appropriate skill level is a mandatory requirement under the new system. Significantly, sports players are not currently included in the Government’s list of eligible jobs. This means players looking to join clubs in the UK will not be able to obtain a Skilled Worker visa if their only form of employment would be as a player for a rugby club in National League One or below (or anything Championship and below in the women’s game).

However, it’s likely that players and staff would be joining clubs at these levels on a semi-professional or amateur basis – meaning they will represent the club whilst being employed in another job, separate to their role at the rugby club.

The Government’s list of eligible jobs contains various roles across a range of industries currently including, but by no means limited to: farmers, IT engineers, bricklayers, teachers, sports therapists and many more. Players may be able to obtain a skilled worker visa if they have an offer for one of the eligible jobs from an employer that will sponsor them, and also meet the other requirements set out above.

Clubs looking to recruit foreign players and staff could, therefore, encourage the player or staff member to secure a job in one of the eligible roles in order to obtain a Skilled Worker visa. The player may then be able to represent the club in a semi-professional or amateur capacity whilst employed in the “skilled” role.

In addition, there are various forms of visas available to students looking to study in the UK on a short-term or long-term basis. Such visas would enable a foreign student to study in the UK and play for a rugby club alongside their studies. This option should also be considered by UK clubs.

Key considerations

Brexit and the new rules on visas will affect clubs at all levels of rugby in the UK. Clubs should identify which of their players and staff are EU nationals and make sure they are aware that they have until 30 June 2021 to apply to the EU settlement scheme.

For new EU players and staff, clubs should gain an understanding of the new visa requirements and ensure these are complied with. In the men’s Premiership & Championship and women’s Premiership, clubs can apply for GBEs from the RFU to enable foreign players, which now include EU players, to obtain a Tier 2 (Sportspersons) or Tier 5 (Temporary Worker) visa. The requirements for GBEs should be considered when assessing potential foreign players to sign.

Clubs in other leagues should look at Skilled Worker visas and the various types of student visas. These visas may enable foreign players to play for clubs in the UK whilst working for a UK employer or studying at a UK institution.

Overall, the new regimes are complicated and detailed. Clubs at all levels, across both the men’s and women’s games, will need to identify the rules that apply to them and carefully ensure all eligibility requirements and formalities are properly adhered to.  

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