The latest in a long litany of Israel Folau debacles, the supposed negotiations with St George Illawarra, has brought the chatter about the legalisms and morality of his ban back to the fore.
But talk of lofty ideals about expression and tolerance have obfuscated the fact that a player contracted to a professional club has felt able to up sticks and renege on his paymasters without consequence or penalty for either the player or his would-be employers.
Folau’s current ban from the NRL is down to the publication of his, er, forthright views, not because of legal obligations with another rugby league club.
For what it’s worth, the inflammatory language naturally leaves many uncomfortable, flirting dangerously between the edges of free speech and extremism. As a classic social libertarian, it’s tempting to channel Voltaire and “defend to the death” his right to say what I may vehemently disagree with.
I still haven’t come to a fully fledged opinion on his right to play, or the morality of restrictions for expressing opinions. But I digress. It’s not the social media palaver, but another aspect of this drama that has left a sickly taste in my mouth.
We’re still relying on hearsay and a friend of a friend, but it appears he won’t be returning to Perpignan, in spite of his remaining 12-month contract term.
Talk of a family incident requiring his immediate return should not be scoffed at, and privacy respected. We all have harrowing stories of the family of citizens being denied entry, and there is still some doubt regarding Catalans’ participation in Super League (owing to French border restrictions).
I am aware that the northern hemisphere plays second fiddle to the NRL. I have no problems with the principle of the NRL experimenting with divergence from standard international rules. By all means call Super League a graveyard for the aging, a final payday for the has-beens, filled with slower runners and fullbacks that couldn’t catch COV (joke in poor taste).
But the fact a supposedly legally binding agreement can be disregarded is testament to the need to codify transfer rules. It’s not too much to ask for legal equality and standing between Super League and NRL contracts.
In the same way that a disgruntled player at Canterbury can’t simply abandon their club with years left on the contract for pastures greener with the Roosters, treat deals in England and France, and any transfers coming from them, the same as they would be in Australia.
Transfer fees also need to be better utilised. Rather than purchasing clubs simply buying out the remaining value of a player’s contract, clubs should be more forthright in demanding greater financial compensation in return for selling (in the same way that transfer fees in football exceed the would-be wages of the player).
In practice, this would mean that the Dragons (of the Australian variety), in order to secure Folau’s services, would need to pay a fee agreed with their French namesakes.
The fact that Folau wants to return should not allow for him to walk for nothing, but like in other negotiations, the knowledge that he is unhappy and would play worse (or refuse to play) should hasten an amicable agreement. The fact that Catalans may pursue financial compensation after he has already signed for another club is a poor state of affairs that leaves them out of their dues.
Other ideas, such as the reduction of agents’ fees, guarantees of release for international fixtures, bans on pre-transfer negotiations, and an earlier transfer deadline may also be up for debate, but the important thing is that the loophole that allows for trans-hemispheric criss-crossing at a whim, and bugger the legal consequences, must be closed.
It’s almost prophetic that the man with etymological equivalence to one of the most contentious spots in the Middle East raises such controversy. While the usual chatter may have greater societal ramifications, the game must not be blindsided by the odious loophole that has been allowed to fester between the two poles of the sport.