Lions-Kandy SC Transfer Deal: A Reference For The Future
TO accord Upcountry Lions first division rugby status in the first year of it coming into being is not a concession that’ll find universal approval. The popular belief is that, had not the Union decided to put on sale first division slots to new clubs for a fee of Rs.2m. and had not the Upcountry Lions been located in the electorate of Sport Minister Mahindananda Aluthgagame, the Nawalapitiya-based club might not have seen the light of day.
That, though, is a matter that has already been done and dusted in these columns. And the subject matter of today’s discussions is so not about the dubious and controversial gatecrash of the Up Country Lions into the ranks of first division rugby, but rather something the new club has to be commended for: its ground-breaking contribution to the premier domestic tournament, albeit in only its third week in competitive rugby. To appreciate better that contribution, it’s necessary to sketch in a bit of background.
Since players got on the payrolls of clubs in the early 90s, rugby has been peppered by controversies over the crossover of players from one club to another, chasing higher salaries. Invariably, clubs poorer of financial resources just could not hold on to their better players, lured as they were by tempting offers of the richer clubs.
Unethical and unfair it may seem, but such are some abhorrent ways of professionalism – except that here the crossover deals were done behind the backs of the players’ original club. As if the raids by the richer clubs weren’t bad enough, more recently the politically influential defense service teams too joined the plunder, so, making a mockery of the rules governing transfer of players.
In other words, the richer clubs and those with political clout, especially the Navy and the Air Force, took their talent-requirements from other clubs without so much as a by-your-leave – let alone compensation paid to the deprived club. It had become a flagrantly unfair exchange, with the entire buffet table laid before the rich and powerful clubs, and the poorer clubs left to pick through the leftovers.
But an end to this unsavoury practice was signaled last week by the gentlemanly manner in which the new club and, ironically, Kandy SC (the club most accused of poaching the better players of others) concluded a transfer deal. The Nawalapitiya club paid Rs.400, 000 to Kandy SC to buy out the latter’s three-year contract with Sajit Saranga, the former Isipathanian and present Sri Lanka second row forward who began his club career with the champion side last year. It is the first publicly known case of a player’s transfer being conducted strictly by the book, as opposed to the backdoor deals (between an individual player and the recruiting club) of the past. The precedent set last week, so, provides rugby administrators with a case study it can point to should future attempts to infringe the rules of player transfer be made. (More than a few transfers of CR players to the Havelocks this season, according to the latter, were concluded after consent was sought by CR but didn’t involve any financial transaction as the players’ contracts had run out).
Why Saranga’s transfer wasn’t concluded three weeks after the season had begun and not before its commencement, suggests the Upcountry Lions might’ve attempted the old modus operandi to acquire Saranga – i.e. that the Union, in deference to the powers of the Sport Minister, might give the nod, ignoring Kandy SC’s objection – as was routinely done in the four years spanning the two previous administrations.
But thankfully, the administration of the Asanga Seneviratne committee is made of sterner stuff. It apparently has no compunction about throwing the rule book at those attempting to circumvent the laws, which is probably what brought about a period of gestation before Saranga’s eventual release from Kandy SC last week. The precise details of the deal’s conditions, of course, will remain privy to only the two concerned parties, but given that the matter was settled three weeks after the season began rather than pre-season, it’s a justifiable assumption that there’s been much pushing-and-pulling between the two, which is a good thing. Genuine negotiations, after all, are a long drawn out process.
Be that as it may, the rugby community can breathe a collective sigh of relief that, at least this one time, political power didn’t prevail when it could so easily have. Sport Minister Aluthgamage and SLRFU chief Seneviratne deserve credit. Instances of Sport Ministers bending the laws to accommodate political interests are legion, the most spectacular being the transfer of the national rugby selectors’ duties to a panel of Sport Ministry selectors so that the son of a VIP would be appointed national captain – an appointment which the national selectors weren’t in favour of. That flagrant surrender of the sacred prerogative of the national selectors might have been prevented had the Union a president with balls, and thrown the book at the powerful intruders, as the Seneviratne committee did in the case of Saranga’s transfer.
The upshot: the present administration has let it be known that it will rule strictly by the book, period. And that’s something you can’t say the same about many sport chiefs.
Just so that the player transfer system is made securer against any tampering, the Sunday Leader understands, the Union wants to control the system in its entirety and is preparing the legislation for it. Presently, the deal is to be supposedly conducted between the buying and selling clubs, though that has not been adhered to for reasons aforementioned. Now the Union wants to be a third signatory to not only player transfers but to all contracts, i.e. even those clubs sign with its players at the time of recruitment.
So, effectively, a contract between club and player doesn’t entitle the latter to represent the former unless the contract bears the SLRFU seal of approval. At first sight it might seem a tad too dictatorial, but as one union official explains: “if the union wants to firmly entrench the player transfer system, as this committee wants to, then, it needs to be involved in the player’s contract from the start. The idea is for all contracts to be registered with the Union. It is not the intention of the union to interfere in the agreements between clubs and individual players, but contracts and court cases are never far from each other – and, as past experiences have taught us, litigation and controversy don’t do the game any good. So if the union is a signatory to the contract, and disputes arise, especially over transfers, the union is in a position to arbitrate those disputes rather than the contesting parties rushing off to the court house.”
The pay-for-play scheme has been functioning for about two decades and, on reflection, it defies commonsense why a player transfer system hasn’t been operative until now. Correction: the system was put in place during the 2005-07 regime of Priyantha Ekanayake, but disregarded first by the richer clubs and then the politically powerful service teams. The trouble was that successive administrations, for fear of hurting the sensitivities of the rich and powerful, didn’t enforce the rules. The Seneviratne committee has shown it will – and that’s a stand that anyone wishing the game well has to support. The game has been administered, willy-nilly, for too long to be of any good to anybody but a chosen few.