Rod Findlay: Rugby Football League

With its first in-house lawyer in place, the Rugby Football League is getting tough on both drugs and external advisers.

“It was a bit of a gamble, for sure,” says Rod Findlay of the switch to sports law after 10 years at Newcastle firm Samuel Phillips, where he was a partner. It is unclear, though, whether he means a gamble for him or for the Rugby Football League (RFL).

His business card reads simply ‘In-house lawyer’. “I was the first, so I didn’t know what title to give myself. I suppose I could have come up with something a bit fancier,” he says.

Disillusioned at the prospect of spending the next 30 years handling medical negligence cases in the North, Findlay did a postgraduate certificate in sports law under the tutelage of Hammonds sports law head Jonathan Taylor and landed the RFL role.

“The RFL had spent a lot of money on [external] lawyers in the past, and having one on the payroll was a way of reducing that spending,” says Findlay. “A forward-thinking, modern business needs internal legal expertise.”

Indeed, the RFL was lagging behind other professional sports such as cricket, rugby union, tennis and, of course, the Football Association when it came to internal legal support.

A year into the post and the RFL has already reaped clear dividends. In the past 12 months Findlay has been called upon to select a new external legal panel, which is expected to make significant cost savings, oversee a successful defence of the game’s anti-doping laws, renegotiate the participation agreements for the Super League clubs, arrange new sponsorship arrangements and assist on the expansion of the Super League into France. A new broadcasting rights contract and fundamental changes to the structure of the game are battles that are rapidly approaching from the horizon.

The legal panel review saw Addleshaw Goddard discarded as the sole external adviser, a role it held for eight years, in favour of a split panel, comprising Farrer & Co for sports law and Pinsent Masons for everything else.

“It was right that we reviewed the panel to see if the existing relationship was still the best. There had been a change in the RFL’s needs with my appointment, and as a responsible governing body all other professional contracts are put out to tender, so the same should be done with our legal services,” says Findlay. “I expect the review to make our external legal spend quite a bit less, but there are challenges in the next two or three years that we’ve not faced before.”

The RFL faced its biggest challenge last year when a player took issue with the code’s anti-doping regulations in the High Court. Bradford Bulls player Ryan Hudson was banned for two years after testing positive for the steroid Stanozolol. He challenged the length of the ban, arguing that new regulations the RFL was adopting were unfair after another player caught using the same drug had previously been banned for only one year.

Addleshaws litigation partner Simon Kamstra and associate Mark Molyneux advised the RFL, and Findlay speaks highly of their work on the case. Addleshaws took on the advocacy role for the RFL in Manchester High Court. Cramer Richards senior partner Richard Cramer assisted Cloisters barrister Jonathan Crystal for Hudson.

Findlay says: “The challenge was to a fundamental provision of the anti-doping regulations we’d tailored to the game from the [regulatory and funding body] UK Sport model. If it had been successful, there potentially could have been problems for anti-doping regulations worldwide.”

The RFL is another in a long line of organisations affected by the delays to London’s Wembley Stadium, with the Challenge Cup season final punted off the ground, now set to be played at Twickenham.

“We hope not to end up in the courts over this. The RFL has a 20-year agreement with the stadium, so we need to work together,” says Findlay.

Next on Findlay’s plate is finalising the club’s participation contracts, based on a model used by Australia’s National Rugby League. With the clubs not having any in-house legal function, Findlay is finding himself negotiating with clubs’ chief executive officers.

Following the completion of that task, negotiations for the far more controversial plan to abandon the promotion/relegation system for the Super League and introduce a fixed franchise system for the clubs will begin.

“It will mean a fundamental change in the relationship between the clubs and the Super League,” says Findlay. “It’s an unusual concept in British sport, and there will certainly be issues to sort out.”

Rugby Football League
Rugby Football League

Organisation Rugby Football League
Sector Sport
Turnover £19m
Legal Spend £200,000
Employees 60
Legal capacity One
Head of legal Rod Findlay
Reporting to Chief operating officer Nigel Wood
Main law firms Farrer & Co (sports law), Pinsent Masons (general)Rugby league is a tough and physically demanding game, but when the sports governing body appointed a medical law specialist as its first-ever in-house lawyer last year, more than a few eyebrows were raised.