Sunday, July 08, 2007

Making opportunities out of problems

Unless you've been living in a cave on Mars with your fingers in your ears lately, you'll have heard the saga about Sheffield United, West Ham and the FA Premier League. Basically, West Ham bought an excellent player, but in buying him breached a number of Premier League rules about registration. The Premier League found them guilty in April this year, but refused to take any points away from them as it was too close to the end of the season and would have been unfair given West Ham were embroiled in a relegation scrap. Instead they fined them £5m, and it was Sheffield United and Wigan who ended up being relegated as that player scored a vital goal on the final day to keep West Ham up.

Needless to say much has been made of it since, and Sheffield United recently appealed the punishment on the grounds it was too lenient and that many other teams in lower leagues have previously suffered points deductions for playing unregistered or incorrectly registered players. That appeal was dismissed this week, and West Ham remain in the Premier League for next season picking up around £20m in potential income as a result. Not a bad piece of work, take a £5m hit on the basis it could generate you £20m in the following year.

Also this week, news broke that three of rugby league's top clubs - Bradford, Wigan and St Helens - will be called before the Rugby Football League to discuss potential breaches of the salary cap in 2006. The clubs have previous form for infringing cap rules, either accidentally or deliberately, and the eyes of the rugby league community will be trained on the RFL over the next week or so awaiting the results of their findings - in much the same way the eyes of the football world were on the FA when they were deciding the punishment for West Ham.

The link between the two cases grows stronger, given Wigan narrowly avoiding relegation in 2006 after a mid-season recruiting drive, including the world record fee paid for Stuart Fielden from Bradford. If they have been shown to have overspent in the pursuit of retaining their Super League place, and given the club received a points deduction in the past for overspending the cap, perhaps the RFL can expect a challenge from Castleford who were the team relegated last season. Fortunately the RFL have an operational rules framework which covers the salary cap and the punishments for breaches are already set out depending on the nature and size of the offence, so there is little room for arbitrary judgements as in the West Ham case.

What this does represent however is an opportunity for the RFL to put a marker down prior to the cap becoming "live" in 2008. Next year all teams must receive clearance from the RFL that any new playing contracts will not push them over the salary cap before that player can be registered, rather than the current system of retrospective audits. The hearings coming up give the RFL the chance to both show that those who infringe the rules don't prosper (Wigan avoiding relegation, St Helens winning the Grand Final) by setting down meaningful punishments, while also providing some good publicity for the sport by showing off the innovative cap management method for next year.

Unlike the FA, who have emerged from the West Ham affair with very little credit whatsoever, it is to be hoped the RFL grasp the nettle on both counts.

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