There are few hotter topics in rugby right now than IRB Regulation 9.28 (c) so our prediction man, 'Orrible Punt, has done some digging on the issue.
Tiers for Fears
The International Rugby Board launched the IRB series this November, which in their own words was - "an extensive programme of competitive matches for Tier Two and Three nations during the November 2012 window". A fantastic arrival.
After complaints of how these teams were treated in the RWC, namely given shorter turnaround time between matches than 'bigger' nations, this move was seen as a huge step in the right direction.
Samoa followed up a big win over Canada by beating Wales and given that they lost to the Welsh during RWC 2011, having been given several days less to prepare than their Tier 1 opponent, then the result will no doubt be used to show that these fixtures are a success.
It's also clear there is a desire to ensure that 2015's tournament will be as competitive as possible, with extra funding coming for such competitions as the Pacific Nations Cup.
So far so good, right? But perhaps this new series of international games is going to inflame the always sensitive 'club versus country' situation.
Please release me, let me go
There was a reference on commentary during Sunday's Dragons vs Saints LV= Cup fixture that the USA coach had overlooked Samu Manoa and that he was of superior quality to the locks selected (Brian Doyle/Louis Stanfill).
However this didn't tally with a statement on the USArugby.org that said: "Samu Manoa, an important player for the Eagles, is suffering from a minor shoulder injury and will not participate in the tour."
I was curious when the player had picked up this minor injury - checking the season stats, Manoa has played 571 minutes in the Aviva Premiership (of a possible 640), 130 in the Heineken Cup (of 160). He lasted 80 minutes in the always bruising East Midlands derby on November 3, and recorded 14 tackles which was the highest in his team.
He missed the home LV= Cup defeat against Quins on November 10 so you would assume that the injury occurred close to that date or was perhaps a culmination of wear and tear from games, as it had been described as 'minor'.
I sought clarification from Nigel Melville, CEO and President of Rugby Operations for USA Rugby and asked whether the player was injured or simply not selected. His reply was: "yes an injury, certainly would have been selected, Ngwenya visa problem and Chris Wyles are unavailable for selection next weekend".
The USA faced and were beaten by Tonga in a match that kicked off at 20.00 in Colwyn Bay this past Saturday.
Therefore we witnessed a situation where a player missed an international match through injury, but represented his club less than 24 hours later and managed the full 80 minutes in what was deemed by the match experts as the most physical LV= Cup game they had seen in a long time.
It is worth mentioning that this player was discussed in an article by John Daniel in the Independent on November 6, with Eddie O'Sullivan quoted as saying the lock had missed the World Cup as he had "a clause in his contract prevents him from travelling to RWC".
The response from his club was that: "There is no clause in his contract preventing him playing international rugby; it was Samu's choice not to go to New Zealand with the USA".
It may or not be significant that the player signed a new three-year contract in February 2012 and therefore it would have been more relevant to know whether he had clause in his old contract - that began in April 2011.
It's not just injury that can cause a player to miss an international match. As Melville mentioned, Takudzwa Ngwenya suffered an unfortunate Visa problem that was also reported in L'Equipe on November 7.
Due to a ten-day waiting period for Visa renewal he apparently couldn't enter the UK and had to turn down a selection request from the USA. This meant instead of representing his country, he played for Biarritz in a game against Perpignan and helped end a six-game losing run and pick up vital points.
Is it a coincidence that the timing of this issue allowed him to travel to England on October 13 to play Quins in the Heineken Cup and only became significant on the sole weekend that Top 14 fixtures clashed with the Test window?
IRB on the case?
Prompted by the recent Fiji stories, the IRB say they will act on the matter.
As mentioned by Melville, the IRB also said the subject of "release issues" during this month's internationals would be on the agenda for their November meetings in Dublin.
If it can be proved that a club offered money for a player to make himself 'unavailable' then that would be clear-cut. However can you state that the idea that a player may lose his spot due to competition for places if he is away for a few weeks is a 'disincentive'? The club could argue that it was the player's own opinion and that they reached it without any influence from them. How do you deal with a player that is unavailable due to passport issues - proving intent to miss an international would be difficult?
Going back to the Manoa case at the start of this article. Regulation 9.28 (b) says: "If the Union doctor, or his nominee, and the doctor of the Player's Rugby Body or Club agree that the Player's injury and/or illness is such that he cannot respond affirmatively to the Release request then the Player shall not be entitled to play for a Rugby Body or Club for the period for which he has been or should have been in attendance with the National Representative Team or National Squad save that if a Player becomes fit to play during the course of a Designated Event, he is permitted to play for his Rugby Body or Club unless the Union wishes and is able pursuant to any rules governing the Designated Event, to add the Player to its Squad for that Designated Event."
Given the player in question missed an international game but played for his club the next day, does this mean that the USA gave him permission to do so? Or is this regulation being bypassed, because injured players aren't selected in the first place and therefore no release has been sought? Perhaps the fact that the player recovered too late to play in the designated event is the key?
Nigel's (I'm not on 'Nige' terms yet) exact words were "certainly would have been selected" which is different to selected but unable to attend due to injury.
I fought the law and the law won?
Regulation 9.28 (c): "If having attempted to achieve a consensus on the nature and extent of the injury or illness and the Player's fitness there remains disagreement between the Union doctor, or his nominee, and the Player's Rugby Body or Club doctor over the Player's fitness to participate and respond affirmatively to the release request, then in circumstances where it is the Union doctor, or his nominee, that considers the Player is fit to participate and respond affirmatively to the release request then, unless the Player's Union agrees otherwise in writing, such Player shall not play for any Rugby Body or Club during for the period for which he has been or should have been in attendance with the National Representative Team or National Squad, plus an additional 10 days thereafter".
So the regulation is actually weighted to protect the international sides and in effect has a ten-day suspension if a club deems a player unfit but his country think he is fine to play.
There are also clear deterrents for clubs refusing players to be released:
(a) Termination or suspension of membership of the Union and/or withdrawal of other benefits of membership of the Union.
(b) A financial penalty.
(c) Deduction of league points.
(d) Relegation or exclusion or disqualification from any competition.
(e) Such other sanction as may be considered appropriate.
(f) Any combination of the sanctions set out in (a) to (e) above.
The problem may be that the rule makers envisaged that any punishments for non-release should be directed at the clubs whereas in reality it's likely that the players are making themselves unavailable. Hopefully issues are resolved in Dublin but for now, discuss.
By Russ Petty