On Friday 7th November Keighley Cougars made the unprecedented move of requesting the RFL Board to call an Extraordinary General Meeting of the member clubs of the rugby football league. The move was supported by Sheffield Eagles, Barrow Raiders, Hunslet Hawks and Wakefield Wildcats.
I made this move because litigation is always costly and you are always uncertain of success. However, we commenced the litigation in order to ensure we received the evidence surrounding the ineligible player matter from the RFL. The evidence confirmed our assumptions and an EGM is the best way forward. The reason for this is that, I believe, the RFL organisation has created itself a conundrum over the issue.
The act of the RFL appeals panel overturning the 3 point deduction for Batley (and Doncaster) fielding an ineligible player due to previous non-enforcement of the Operational Rule concerning Dual Registered players has set a precedent. The precedent is that the rule was never enforced and the appeals panel found that it was fair to overturn an enforcing decision. So, if Kingstone Press Championship teams next season, in the desperate bid for glory, play a dual registered ineligible player then, due to precedent, the rule cannot be enforced.
If the RFL Board says that it will be enforced then the question is – how can they guarantee that they can enforce it? The directors of the RFL maintain that the disciplinary and appeals panels are independent so, following that line of thought, the panels are free to decide whatever they wish without interference from the RFL Board. In the independence scenario, the RFL Board is categorically prohibited from instructing the panels in their decision making. The appeals panel in the Batley case found that there had been no previous enforcement of the rule in question so overturned the disciplinary panel decision. Following that line of thought, through the need for consistency of decision making and that the precedent that has been set, then surely a disciplinary panel considering the same offence next year must conclude that it is unable to enforce the rule because that’s what their competently qualifed independent counterparts had concluded the season before. It’s the same rule and the same circumstances. If the disciplinary enforces the rule then it will, unmistakably, prove that either the disciplinary process makes it up as it goes along, or it is subject to interference from the RFL Board, or that the appeals panel decision on 28th August 2014 was fundamentally unsafe. Whichever way you look at it these 3 conclusions hit at the very foundations of the integrity of our sport. It’s worth thinking very deeply about this paragraph.
Because of this conundrum the RFL Board are unable to resolve the situation. If they resolve it then they are effectively saying that the disciplinary process gets it wrong sometimes – which would open a very tricky Pandora’s box. Further, if they resolve it then they are effectively interfering with the disciplinary process which is supposed to be independent. Tricky stuff.
Now, the best way to have resolved this problem, in my view, would have been to go to arbitration – to an independent respected body such as the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The RFL lawyers refused point blank to go there. In their shoes that is a sensible decision because going to arbitration would have set a precedent for other clubs to use it. And, because I think that the arbitrator would have found in favour of the Cougars (and I think the RFL Board think so too or else they would, obviously, have agreed to arbitration), then other clubs would be expecting to use arbitration as a valid tool. This would have caused the RFL a problem as it would have eroded the control and power of their internal disciplinary processes.
I say “internal disciplinary processes” because, in my view, that’s exactly what it is. Operational Rule D 1:4 is my favourite rule of all the Operational Rules. It states:
D1:4The Operational Rules Tribunal Panel shall be selected by the Board and will consist of Independent Persons unless the Board otherwise thinks fit. One member of the Board may sit on the Operational Rules Tribunal Panel if the Board thinks fit. The Board shall designate one or more members of the Operational Rules Tribunal Panel as the Senior Operational Rules Tribunal Panel Member(s) and the Board may remove such person from office and replace him/her. If the Senior Operational Rules Tribunal Panel Member(s) is (are) ill or otherwise unavailable, the Board may appoint another member of the Operational Rules Tribunal Panel to act in his/her stead on a temporary basis.
It uses the word independent within the text but I will let the reader draw their own conclusions as to its independence.
With the RFL there is no right to arbitration by an external body. Currently, the disciplinary process ends inside the RFL organisation. Whatever is decided in an appeals panel, according to the RFL Board, cannot be undone. When the decision is questioned the RFL Board immediately point to the independence of the panel. It’s frustrating when you’re a club who believes it has borne the brunt of 3 unfair decisions in one season. It’s my own personal opinion but having represented Paul March in his appeals panel for the 4 match ban for abusing a match official, then representing him in his disciplinary panel which concluded he was to have a 2 month stadium ban and then witnessing the ease with which a 3 point deduction was overturned in Batley’s favour I feel I have a right to feel very sore about the way, I feel, the Cougars have been treated this season. In my view, if arbitration by an external body had been allowed, Paul March would have been exonerated from his 4 match ban (the video evidence supports my view on this), he would have been exonerated from his 2 month stadium ban (we had 4 witnesses that stated catergorically that Paul did not abuse the match official and 2 of them admitted they did it and it was a case of mistaken identity) and Keighley Cougars would have been awarded substantial damages/rapid re-instatement for the Batley scenario.
However, arbitration is not currently allowed by the Operational Rules, so the only sensible recourse is to call an EGM of member clubs to sort the problem out. The RFL Board has stated it can’t sort it out but the member clubs have the power to do this. I believe the member clubs absolutely have to sort this out for the reasons I have stated above because next season, all things being equal, could become chaos the day after transfer deadline day.
Given all this my objectives for the EGM resolutions were:
– To resolve the situation so that any detriment to Keighley Cougars and Sheffield Eagles is put right through either compensation or re-instatement (although, due to delays, re-instatement for us is simply not practical)
– To change the disciplinary processes so that this problem never ever occurs again in the future. For this, I wanted the right to arbitration to be inserted into the Operational Rules
However, whereas we feel very emotional about it, other clubs don’t necessarily feel the same way. In fact, most of them behave like it’s not their problem (although it will be their problem if they experience next season what we have experienced this season). We were lucky enough to have clubs that are prepared to support us from the principal that we were wronged. So, the resolution the member clubs will discuss and agree on at the EGM is the first one. Hopefully, we can come to a sensible resolution and put the immediate issue to bed with everyone moving on.
However, I will continue to campaign to achieve the second objective. I believe that the right to arbitration should be as much a part of the Operational Rules as the definition of what makes a player ineligible. It’s one thing I will not forget until the situation finally changes. The FA allows arbitration so why not the RFL? I think the change would be very good for the sport and avoid conundrums like this in the future. After all, what’s the harm in having an independent arbitrator look at whether the decisions that are being made by the internal disciplinary processes are fair and correct? It seems a very sensible grown up thing to do.