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What Does The Future Hold For Six Nations Rugby In A Post-Brexit Europe?

20/01/2017 13:17
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'Brexit' is still very much the word on everyone's portmanteau-loving lips, but as debate still rages over whether our good leaders will be dishing up an order of soft- or hard-boiled Brexit, some of us have other pressing concerns: getting our fix of the latest Six Nations action.

Three British teams compete in the famed tournament, with Ireland, Italy and France joining in from the euro-zone. Meanwhile pressure continues to allow Georgia and Romania to compete too. But post-Brexit, are we looking at a new eight-nation tournament, or could it drop back to five or even three, if England, Scotland and Wales are given the boot?

With so much still up in the air, we can only speculate, and god knows I'm no expert (Michael Gove approves this message). But we can try a few predictions for the future of rugby in a post-Brexit Europe.

Players

Even before the blasted referendum result came in, Rugby World looked at what the UK's departure from Europe could mean for rugby and overseas signings on our shores. For now, the EU's freedom of movement principle allows sportsmen and women from the EU to ply their trade in the UK with little--if any--restriction.

If the UK suspends free movement, it would mean European players would be subject to the same terms as non-EU players, who are required to have appeared in at least one Test in the past 15 months.

Converting that criteria, Louis Picamoles, who signed for Northampton in November 2015 would fit the brief given that he'd recently played for the French national side, but Italian-born prop Derrick Appiah, who joined Worcester in February 2015, would not have been eligible to make the move because he has not played for Italy at Test level.

The Rugby Football Union tend to red card international players at the best of times. A policy formalised by the RFU in 2010 saw the English national team commit to only pick home-based players for international fixtures.

The hope was to protect the quality of the English league by ensuring the best English players stayed at home. In reality, the policy saw European player of the year Nick Abendanon and his predecessor Steffon Armitage left out of international tournaments. Could they have better luck securing home talent this time around? That's one the RFU will have to scrum out.

What's most likely to cause a break down, however, is Rugby's foreign player ruling. The Aviva Premiership, Guinness Pro12 and European competitions have a limit of just two foreign players in a match-day 23. EU players are exempt, as are players from African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP countries) under the Cotonou Agreement and Kolpak Ruling, that prevents treating players from countries like South Africa, Namibia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga as 'foreign players' when named in UK squads.

But the EU referendum therefore throws the status of both EU and ACP players in doubt: if new rulings mean EU players count as 'foreign players', surely ACP players will too? We might soon see domestic teams feature a far greater proportion of UK players than before. Who knows, the ball is loose.

Spectators

The Six Nations is about more than rugby: it is also a significant part of Europe's tourist industry.

Buying tickets can be a bit of a scrum, with each rugby union using different media to sell match tickets, and some fixtures sell out months in advance as demand outstrips supply. Both sides are always weightily supported by fans singing out in a loud, drunken carillion of patriotic tunes having often travelled hundreds of miles across the continent to catch a piece of the action.

There's also a huge corporate draw for high-end rugby packages like those at Twickenham's Clubhouse, the Millennium Stadium and The Murrayfield Experience. Celebrated for creating valuable bonds between business partners and clients, high-end spectacles like these are popular among corporate sports fans of all nationalities; not least because they deliver a remarkable return on investment. But all that could be about to change.

This year, England host both continental teams at home at Twickenham. Scotland play both Ireland and Italy at home, but travel away to France, and the welsh team are on the road for all three internationals. If visa restrictions come into effect, we could find it much more difficult to leave our little island nation to watch away games across The Channel.

If travel restrictions occur, our European counterparts will likely encounter the same difficulties when trying to catch games on British soil. We could begin to see stadiums, even pitches, bare, which could have real knock-on effects for the game as a whole.

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