The Wales and British Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips was recently notified by his domestic club Bayonne that his contract, which was due to terminate in June 2014, has been immediately terminated by the French side. This followed an incident whereby he allegedly arrived at a team video analysis session while intoxicated.
The player was immediately suspended and missed a 24-19 win over Montpellier in the French Top 14 competition. His New Zealand teammates Dwayne Haare and Stephen Brett were also involved in the incident however, unlike Phillips, they were not suspended by the club. Haare was named on the bench and Brett started the Montpellier fixture, playing a key role in the build-up to the sides’ second try. A club source has reported that both Haare and Brett will receive substantial fines, but will keep their jobs.
Following Phllips’ immediate suspension, he met with club officials on 26 October 2013 and was advised that his contract would be scrapped and he was being released. The increased punishment for Phillips more than likely stems from a previous incident in September 2012, whereby Phillips was suspended for 10 days by Bayonne for ‘misconduct’. It was reported that the club president Alain Afflelou had taken exception to Phillips being out late and intoxicated following a crushing home defeat against Toulouse.
Phillips has confirmed that he is taking legal action against his former club. Due to the fact that he played his rugby in France this argument will be governed by the French Labour Code. These state that an employer can dismiss an employee where this decision is based on ‘legitimate grounds’. Additionally, the grounds for dismissal must be ‘real and serious’. The decision by Bayonne to immediately dismiss Phillips without notice will be found to be a legal one if the grounds for doing so fall within the category of serious or gross misconduct. Additionally, the club will have to demonstrate that the player’s conduct was so serious or flagrant that his continued presence in the company during the notice period was impossible.
It is clear that Bayonne were already bracing for the forthcoming legal challenge from Phillips, with club president Afflelou recently telling the French media that ‘from the moment he let us down it was not possible to keep him’. It goes without saying that the club will rely on the previous case of misconduct, in addition to any clauses in the player’s contract whereby the club can terminate for gross or serious misconduct. Additionally, it is normal for sports organisations to make all their employees sign up to a code of conduct. If this is the case at Bayonne, there is no doubt that this will include a provision relating to the general conduct of their players, which will potentially also involve inappropriate alcoholic consumption. If this is the case then it is safe to say that this too will be relied upon by the Clubs’ lawyers.
It therefore seems that Phillips faces an uphill battle to prove that his dismissal by the club was an illegal one. Despite this, with salaries in the Top 14 substantially greater than those in England the likelihood is that, without a battle, Philips is effectively waving goodbye to well over £100,000 in wages. However, with Afflelou recently stating that Phillips had effectively committed an act of treason following his personal backing of the player after the incident in September 2012, when others had wanted him immediately sacked, in addition to a recent 2 year contract extension discussion, it is clear that the club are preparing to fight any claim all the way.