“Gatland’s Law”: 2 words that can elicit a range of opinions from fans. The basic premise is that players can only be picked for the Welsh national team if they play their club rugby in Wales. Players who have signed new contracts outside of Wales since the law was brought in are ineligible unless they are picked as one of up to 3 ‘wildcards’. This is the Welsh equivalent of the rule that many unions are bringing in regarding eligibility for the national team in an effort to keep the talent in the country and improve the national team’s access to its stars.
However, due to the rules relating to contracts (more on this soon) and due to the availability of wildcard selections, Gatland’s law has become one of the most controversial and ridiculed of its kind, also arguably one of the least successful as internationals continue to leave for other leagues – most recently starting fly half Dan Biggar who will be moving to Northampton next summer.
For this article, I’ve decided to have a look at the pros and the cons of Gatland’s Law to see if this is something that the WRU should look at changing or scrapping
As mentioned above, a number of unions have similar rules about international selection in place, as there are legitimate reasons for keeping your players in country.
First and foremost is the benefit to the club game. Fans and broadcasters pay good money to watch the Regions play in the Pro14 and the European Cups. If all the international stars left the Regions then I doubt the interest would be anywhere near as high. The WRU need the regions to be successful and draw in revenue so that they can try to compete against other, richer unions. By enticing (blackmailing?) players to stay in Wales in order to feature for the national team, it allows the fans to see their heroes play on a regular basis and also helps the Regions to be competitive in competitions. Jonathan Davies looked fantastic in Scarlets’ playoff run as they won the Pro12 last season, having returned to Wales following a couple of seasons at Clermont. Would he have made this move if he had been free to play in a different league and yet still play for the national team? Likewise would Leigh Halfpenny have been more open to a move to the Premiership (there was clearly interest from a couple of attractive teams) if it wasn’t putting his international career at risk?
As well as helping the club game, it also helps the WRU at international level. In recent years the WRU have enjoyed arranging Test matches or training camps outside of the international window governed by World Rugby. During the windows, clubs must allow their players to attend camps or matches, however this is not required at other times and is at the discretion of the club. Though the club may be willing to let its players fulfil international commitments outside the window, Premiership Rugby Limited do not generally approve of players leaving outside the windows and have been known to sanction clubs for allowing it. By having the vast majority of the internationals playing for the Regions, it guarantees their availability whenever the national team requires them. It also allows their playing time to be managed over the season to ensure that they are not burned out when they are due to be playing in Test matches. Due to the size of the population and number of Regions playing in the top flight, the Welsh national team will never have the same possible player base as some countries, the WRU must do what they can to make the national team an clubs competitive.
While the WRU understandably wants to keep star players with the Regions, they may in some circumstances benefit from playing outside of Wales. Without sounding harsh, how does being the star of a poor Dragons team benefit Taulupe Faletua compared with competing for a space in Bath’s all-star back row. Getting away from the Welsh for a moment, it’s always worth having a look at Jonny Wilkinson’s move to France. Being at Toulon appeared to give him a new lease of life and got him back into the international setup whilst also going on to be named ERC European Player of the Year in 2013.
Having all the stars playing regularly for the Regions also limits the opportunities for the up-and-coming young talent to play at the top level. Sam Davies looks to have real potential but has been having to share his playing time for the Ospreys with Dan Biggar. Had Biggar been playing outside the Pro14 the last couple of years, it would not surprise me to see Davies (IRB Junior Player of the Year 2013) starting for Wales on a more regular basis.
Gatland’s Law also puts players in a difficult position come contract negotiation time. Even with the Welsh dual-contracts, the Regions cannot afford to pay the same salaries that Premiership/Top 14 clubs can. A rugby player’s career is finite and playing the game for a long period is highly likely to cause health problems later in life. For those reasons can a player really be blamed for wanting to leave Wales for a more lucrative contract? I used the word ‘blackmail’ earlier in the article and while that may be a bit of a strong word, I’m sure that some players must have felt that they are in a difficult position when trying to arrange their future.
Finally, the national team as a whole does lose out if players choose to move abroad, as they are limited to just 3 wild card selections from outside Wales. By my count, Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau, George North, Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland will currently all be fighting for wildcard spots next season. There have been rumours swirling in recent weeks that Rhys Webb will moving to England or France when his contract expires this summer. Even if we ignore Roberts and Priestland, that’s already 4 starters fighting for 3 places. Who benefits from that? Certainly not the player or the national team.
There may actually be more regular internationals at risk from Gatland’s Law than I have mentioned above, however I am not certain due to one very worrying reason: nobody seems to know all of the conditions! Luke Charteris has moved to Bath since this was brought in yet he appears to be eligible for the national team without being a wildcard. My previous understanding was that if an exiled player chose to re-sign with the same club then he was still eligible for Wales, it was only if he moved to another club outside Wales that he became a wildcard, yet some of the articles I read to research this suggested that any new contract outside of Wales made you a wildcard. As a Gloucester fan hoping that Ross Moriarty signs an extension sooner rather than later, I would love to have some clarity relating to this! I also saw one article that suggested whether signing a new contract outside Wales made you a wildcard depended on there being a competitive offer from Wales at the same time. If that is the case, then what represents a competitive offer? If a player is offered a contract that makes him the best-paid player in the regions, but he can still get double the wage in England/France, then does that get considered a competitive offer?
Being an Englishman, I assumed that I was simply missing something that was common knowledge to Welsh fans so asked my go-to Welsh rugby expert what the situation was… He didn’t know either!
How is a fan meant to get on board with something if nobody knows the ins and outs. I remember when there was confusion over the RFU’s wording of ‘exceptional circumstances’ allowing a player outside of England to play for the national team, but that has since been cleared up. Now players, coaches and fans all know that you must be playing in England in order to be selected, so everybody is singing off the same hymn sheet.
I can see that there are some obvious benefits to keeping players within the country, but feel that something needs to be changed with Gatland’s Law. One way would be to go down the RFUs route of excluding anyone playing outside the country, however due to there only being 4 Regions compared to 12 Premiership teams I think the WRU would benefit from a selection policy similar to that of the ARU. Under the ARU’s selection policy, a player is eligible to play for Australia if they:
- Play within Australia
- Play outside Australia, but have held a professional contract with Australian rugby for at least 7 years and have played 60 or more Tests
- Returns to Australia from exile on a contract that is at least 2 years long
This rewards those players who have been regulars for the national team by allowing them the chance to search for a more lucrative contract elsewhere while still being eligible for the national team, opening up a space for a talented youngster within the country’s top flight setup. Considering the WRU has for years allowed its players to go abroad, I would suggest leaving out the necessity for players to have held a professional contract within Wales for 7 years. I would also suggest perhaps a slightly lower number of caps, perhaps making the mark 50 caps as this is already a big milestone for a player to reach so would be a good way for the WRU to celebrate a player and thank them for their service.
I’m sure Gatland’s Law will continue to divide opinion amongst fans, so I would love to hear your opinions. What selection criteria (if any) would you apply if you were in charge of the WRU?