Matthew Astley, of the sports law team at Harrison Drury solicitors, looks at the case of Denny Solomona and the lessons for rugby clubs seeking to attract talent from other clubs and the other code of rugby.
In 2016 Denny Solomona set the rugby league world on fire, scoring a total of 40 tries in 27 appearances for Castleford Tigers, setting a new Super League record in the process.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, they finished the 2016 season without any silverware. But to have such a prolific try-scorer as Solomona under contract until the 2018 season – an asset for any club – will undoubtedly have filled them with optimism for the season to come.
As things turned out, Solomona never made it to the 2017 Super League season. He left the Tigers at the end of 2016, saying that he intended to retire from rugby league.
It then emerged, however, that Solomona had subsequently signed a three-year deal with rugby union outfit Sale Sharks. In late 2016, after negotiations between the clubs broke down, the Tigers issued proceedings in the High Court against Solomona for breach of contract and against the Sharks and the player’s agent for inducing the breach.
The Tigers sought damages in excess of £500,000 in what was described as a case more than 120 years in the making between the two rugby codes, which have two different and completely separate governing bodies, the Rugby Football League (“RFL”) and the Rugby Football Union (“RFU”).
Last month, it was revealed that the Tigers received a settlement in the region of £200,000, with an additional sum of £100,000 towards their legal costs, in a case which was described by the chief executive of the RFL as a “matter of profound importance to the sport”.
The RFL’s support of the Tigers’ case may be said to represent concern about the precedent which would be set if a player under contract with a rugby club in one code was able to be freed of his contractual obligations by notionally “retiring” from that code, only to subsequently join a club in the other code, most likely under a more lucrative contract. The belief which underpinned the Tigers’ legal action was that contracts in professional and amateur sports are sacrosanct.
In a statement issued after a settlement was reached, the Sharks stated that they and Solomona were “quite willing to let the case run to trial, confident that they had done nothing wrong”, adding that there was evidence to show that Solomona was “treated unprofessionally” by the Tigers, who it is alleged “forced him into a position where his only future was in a different sport”.
Ultimately as there was no ruling by the court, no official legal precedent has been set which may have helped to guide future dealings between rugby league and rugby union clubs. This is perhaps unfortunate given the separate governance of the sports.
Nevertheless, in light of the settlement reached, it is clear that clubs in either code who are contemplating signing a player still under contract should proceed with caution.
Harrison Drury solicitors can assist in all aspects of sports dispute resolution matters, including relating to rugby league and rugby union. For more information please contact Matthew Astley on 01772 258321.