Rule 23.3 – the rule of fear for all players

The Rugby League rulebook wouldn’t make for great bedtime reading, but parts of it can resemble a horror story for injured players. In this exclusive Rugby League World investigation, we take a look at one rule that leaves all players’ livelihoods at risk – Rule 23.3

If you’ve ever attempted to read your way through The RFL’s extensive rule book, there’s a good likelihood that you stopped by section C3.

While many of the game’s guidelines are procedural, in and amongst a plethora of uninteresting legalities, there are a few rules that most certainly prompt the raising of an eyebrow.

There are plenty of laws in the world of Rugby League that are practically unheard of on a wider scale, in fact, in certain cases, even the players are unaware of such clauses.

One such ruling that very much goes under the radar is actually printed on the Professional Registration Form, something all players must agree to, which can have massive implications on the career of a professional Rugby League player.

It is Rule 23.3, which reads: “If at any time you are physically or mentally unable to play rugby league football and/or train for a period or periods totalling in aggregate at least 26 weeks in total in any 12 month rolling period, or if you are declared “Disabled” within the terms of the League’s Insurance Scheme from time to time in force, the Club may, notwithstanding the existence of any payments under the League’s Personal Accident Policy, in its absolute discretion terminate this Agreement by giving you not less than six months’ written notice to that effect.”

In summary, should a player be out of action for six months during any 12 month period, the employers of said player have the right to terminate their contract, with a year’s worth of pay the only consolation for losing your job.

It is a rule many clubs have used to their advantage over the years. Due to confidentiality agreements, we are not allowed to go into the gory details, but a recent example of where this could have been exploited was the case of Danny Tickle, who was left on the sidelines after suffering a bleed of the brain and a fractured skull following an assault last year. Of course, he did eventually leave the Vikings to join Castleford before finding himself at Leigh.

Danny Tickle
Danny Tickle

For players such as Michael Shenton and Tommy Makinson, who were sidelined with season-ending injuries, there would be absolutely nothing to stop Castleford and St Helens showing them the door after six months of inactivity.

Of course, it is not a compulsory activation, and more often than not clubs have shown loyalty to their player, with Jonny Lomax one example of that. However it is still one of many uncertainties that constantly hang over the heads of the sport’s elite athletes.

One man who has experienced this ruling in full effect is sports solicitor Richard Cramer, who has defended players in their battle against clubs trying to use the ruling to remove them from the club.

“It’s an option clubs often try to utilise when they are around or over the salary cap,” he told RLW.

“I understand why it is there, as for clubs it is a lot of money and there are circumstances when it is needed to ensure players aren’t trying to use their contract to their advantage. But it does nothing to protect players that are seriously injured.

“Normally what happens is that organisations will isolate the player involved, and, for example, make a player train on his own at four o’clock. That’s hardly conducive with employment relations.

“The sport seems to be suffering from more injuries than ever before, and it makes the rule obsolete. If you look at ACL injuries, they take around nine months to recover from. So any player that suffers such an injury is vulnerable to the rule.”

Injuries are a continued talking point in Rugby League. Players are increasingly finding their voice when it comes to their own welfare, with the recent Easter schedule forcing many stars to share their disapproval at the strains of the modern game. There are also many players that refuse to let ‘minor’ injuries stop them, but with rulings like this, it is easy to see why.

“There is a danger with this clause that if you have a groin injury or whatever, you’d be keen to rest it for a week or so,” said Cramer.

“But if you miss the odd week here or the odd week there, there is the risk that if you get an injury you can end up reaching that 26-week mark and clubs have a reason to terminate then.

“What that does is encourage players to play when they’re injured. They’ll disguise the injuries to make sure they don’t come up against the clause. It’s not a good clause, and what I think is unfair is the aggregate side of it. If you take someone with an ACL and they panic because they’re coming up to that 26 week period, they may think they can’t run the risk of the club terminating and speed up the rehabilitation process. That constitutes a massive danger from a player welfare point of view. Players are going to come back much earlier than they should do.

“I understand why the clause is there, but it is out of date with modern injuries when players are getting absolutely hammered. We’re putting players’ lives at risk here.”

Tommy Makinson whose contract could have been under threat in 2016 after his long-term injury.
Tommy Makinson whose contract could have been under threat in 2016 after his long-term injury.

Sadly, the problems surrounding clause 23.3 don’t end there. When a player becomes a free agent, they have a value that is represented by their annual earnings on an existing contract.

However, when a player is released as a result of the aforementioned clause, there is a good probability that their ‘market value’ has decreased, whether it be due to a serious injury or any other reason. As a result, potential suitors regularly don’t believe the player in question is worth his market value. Even if they do think his previous wage is representative of his worth, most clubs have spent up to the salary cap by the time the player is available, so they can’t recruit him anyway.

“In many circumstances, a player that comes on to the market in that way is damaged goods,” said Cramer.

“There have been examples when chief executives have been scared off because, and this is the most ridiculous rule I’ve ever come across, their value on the salary cap is not the contract we are negotiating. It means a player could offer to play for nothing, but because of salary cap calculations, they are effectively valued a lot higher than they are worth at that time. It’s just ridiculous really, because surely his worth is what is on the contract. It can not only affect a player getting a move, but in certain instances, it can stop them playing ever again.”