First-time visitors to Auckland's notorious Pony Club are normally warned to be on the lookout. Go though the wrong door to this popular celebrity watering hole and you're likely to end up in one of New Zealand's oldest pole-dancing joints, where well-heeled punters are relieved of £100 a time to enjoy a private show in the Showgirls Champagne Room. A second door leads to a dimly lit massage parlour. As one recent visitor observed, "either way you'll be overdressed".
For four unmarried England rugby players, trying to forget their latest thumping last Saturday at the hands of their hosts, the All Blacks, the mistake was to set out from the team's hotel in the first place.
While the rest of the squad was sticking to the monastic routine of a healthy dinner followed by a DVD and an early night, the unnamed quartet were embarking on a high-risk evening on the town. It is a decision that looks set to haunt them for the rest of their playing careers and – win or lose in Christchurch today – it has cast a deep shadow over English rugby at a time when it should be capitalising on record levels of public interest.
For whatever went on that night – and only the four players and the half-dozen women they took back to their hotel know for sure – has been the subject of a police investigation and fevered speculation, creating the biggest controversy to hit the sport since Lawrence Dallaglio fell foul of the tabloids almost a decade ago.
And yet yesterday, after nearly a week of an obstinate policy of silence in the face of repeated questioning, English rugby began its fightback with the most powerful figure in the game suggesting the so-called Auckland Four may be more sinned against than sinners.
Asked whether he believed the players had been caught in a "sting" operation, Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, told reporters: "I'd be lying if I said that those thoughts hadn't gone through my mind."
But whether they can douse the flames of controversy at this stage remains unclear. The fire was lit under the scandal on Wednesday when it emerged that the partner of one of the women entertained by the players had submitted a complaint to the Auckland police.
The report forced the England team boss, Rob Andrew, to confirm that his men were co-operating with inquiries into an alleged rape. His team were soon swamped by a tide of salacious innuendo.
It was claimed that one 18-year-old woman had three-in-a-bed sex with two players at the Hilton Hotel, part of a five-star harbour-side development just a couple of wharves away from the site where French secret service agents bombed the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in 1985.
A 22-year-old model, Sophie Lewis, told The Sun yesterday that one of the superfit rugby aces "went like a Duracell bunny". She added admiringly: "We must have done every position imaginable by the time we finished. What a night." The woman also told reporters that four players burst in to her room after returning from training on the Sunday morning. One pulled the duvet off her half-dressed body and ran down the hall with it until they were asked by hotel staff to bring it back.
Meanwhile, a doorman at the Pony Club described how management were aghast at the English players' behaviour. "They were being rowdy and chucking it about a bit, and when it came to closing time ... we had to ask them to leave. When you represent your country you should ... not behave like that," he said.
Not that the English players were the only rugby nation represented at the Pony Club that night. It is claimed that members of the All Blacks were there, too. The team is no stranger to the venue owned by Brooke Howard-Smith, a well-known broadcaster and businessman who co-presented New Zealand's TV coverage of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Last year, six players from the national side were reprimanded for a 4am session in the run-up to a crucial showdown with arch rivals Australia. The carousing All Blacks were undone by member of the public who slipped a letter under the team manager's door denouncing them.
Down Under, the rules are different for rugby players. When an All Black sets foot on the streets of Auckland or Wellington, he might as well be John Terry or Frank Lampard strolling along the King's Road. As Richie McCaw, the current captain of the national side, said this week: "The first thing you have to decide is whether the upside of wearing the shirt beats the downside of living in a goldfish bowl."
Touring teams from the "old country" have a history of problems in this neck of the sporting woods. Most of the issues have been strictly rugby related – difficulties with referees and disciplinary tribunals, primarily – but as long ago as 1977, players fell foul of the New Zealand media. "The Lions are lousy lovers," ran one headline above a racy kiss-and-tell story as the British and Irish Lions flogged their way around a New Zealand awash with winter rain for precious little reward.
But 31 years on, things have taken a serious turn for the worse. The players, acting on the advice of the team's resident barrister, Richard Smith QC, are not keen to talk to the police. As no formal complaint of rape – or any other kind of sexual misconduct – has been made by the alleged victim, they are under no obligation to say a word.
Smith is one of the more fascinating characters in the cast. A fine amateur player – he spent several years scoring hatfuls of tries for the Keynsham club in north Somerset – he took silk in his late 30s, an unusually young age.
So for much of this week, "no comment" was the official approach on all sides after the lawyer ordered the entire England party – 31 players and 17 back-room staff – to stay mum.
Then yesterday, people started talking. Having followed the England team to Christchurch, where the second Test against the All Blacks was being played this morning, the Auckland police issued another statement confirming they were investigating an accusation of rape and/or sexual assault, albeit not a formal one. This lured the tour party out from behind the stockade.
Francis Baron hit back. "There are lurid allegations floating around, but in our view, these boys are innocent until proven otherwise," he said. "We want to reach a position of closure, and if there is no likelihood of a formal complaint against the players over the next 48 hours, I'm sure our legal team will be pressing the police to close the file. The allegations made are very substantial and it's unfair under any jurisdiction that such a situation should be allowed to continue.
"As the players are so far from home, it's important that they should have the best legal advice. We have put that in place for them over the last couple of days, and they have our full support. They are very upset and frustrated at not being able to clear their names, but it's extremely difficult. People are trying to clear themselves of ... what?"
The players involved now face a worrying time, not least as they await the possible attention of the local police, and further claims that look almost certain to be made in this Sunday's papers. At present they enjoy the cloak of anonymity, though how much longer that will last no one can say.
As for their future careers, only time will tell. Already, the Rugby Football Union, governing body of the game in England, is planning to introduce a draconian code of conduct for touring players, and by way of guarding against a repeat of the embarrassment now being suffered will hire security personnel. To them will fall the task of keeping local women out of the rooms of touring players.
Sports stars in the headlines
Justin Fashanu, Britain's first £1m black footballer, was questioned by US police over an alleged sexual assault on a 17-year-old boy. The charges were dropped but Fashanu committed suicide a month later.
Carlton Cole, then of Chelsea, and Titus Bramble, of Newcastle United, were accused by a 17-year-old girl of taking part in a "roast" at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. Prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence to proceed with rape charges against the two players.
In the same year, Paul Dickov, Frank Sinclair and Keith Gillespie, all of Leicester City, were accused of rape by three women while on a training camp at La Manga in Spain. Forensic tests showed no link between the players and their accusers.
Arsenal's Robin van Persie was held in a Rotterdam jail for two weeks after being accused of the rape of a beauty queen. A Dutch court investigation found he had no case to answer.
Jonny Evans, of Manchester United, was accused of rape after a Christmas party. The CPS said there was no evidence to bring charges.Reuse content