Rugby Union: Strife of Bath, a cautionary tale

Rugby's reputation out on its ear: Andrew Longmore charts a family crisis crying out for a confession
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The Independent Online
THE doorbell at the elegant offices of Bath Rugby Club in Queen's Square is taped over. "Not in use", the message says. Worn out probably after a week in which England's most famous club has been thrust to the centre of an unprecedented drama. Agatha Christie scripting Cracker could hardly have bettered The Case of Fenn's Ear. Yet there was nothing fictional about the 25 stitches with which the doctors patched up what was, until about 2.30pm last Saturday, the left ear of Simon Fenn, the London Scottish flanker.

By midweek, the affair had assumed the natural pace of a crime thriller, tinged with elements of black comedy, but the pain was all too real for the young Australian, who was making his debut for the Exiles; for Bath, who have been forced to trawl the murkier depths of rugby's new waters; and for Kevin Yates, the talented England loose- head whose promising international career hangs in the balance. Ordinarily, Bath would be concentrating on today's critical match against the Allied Dunbar league leaders Newcastle and revelling in the return of Jeremy Guscott for the first time this season, but rugby has been the least of Bath's problems.

"It's been a dreadful week, absolutely dreadful," Tony Swift, the Bath chief executive, said. "I don't want it to sound as if Bath have had such a bad time of it, it's been a lot worse for Simon, but I don't think anyone gets involved in a rugby club to deal with something like this. In the end it's about playing a damn game of rugby."

According to romanticised visions of the past, similar incidents would have been settled in rugby's time-honoured way, over a quiet pint. "We were always having a little nibble," Bobby Windsor, the centrepiece of the Pontypool front row, wrote. So what was the fuss? When Oxford University's Ollie Waldron found a suspicious bite mark on his ear during a match with the South Africans in 1966, the culprit was on his way home by the time the two teams had retired to Vincent's Club to make plans for the evening. Bath had no such luxury. The players turned dumb, evidence was scarce, a host of lawyers lined up to ensure fair play and fat fees, and the media were demanding a scalp. For Swift, an accountant by trade and not even fully employed by Bath, the "learning experience" began in earnest last Sunday morning.

Sunday: Swift had interviewed a player on Saturday evening after the extent of the injury to Fenn was known and had woken to newspaper headlines, prompted by Richard Yerbury, his opposite number at the Exiles, demanding punishment for the culprit. "A minimum of 12 months," said Yerbury.

But only when the three Bath officials interview the player - presumably Kevin Yates - for the second time do the complexities emerge. "Then we knew we had problems," Swift says. "Not only did the player not own up, he was far more categoric than that. He said he was totally innocent of everything." Swift informs Yerbury of the complications in a long conversation and sets up an internal investigation group of himself, Andy Robinson, the club coach, and Thomas Sheppard, a solicitor and club director.

Monday: The internal inquiry begins its investigation, reviewing the club's own training video, a video sent down by Scottish and hearing medical evidence from the match doctor, the doctors of both clubs and the majority of the Bath players.

Five videos - one from Sky Sports, one from Sky News, two from the clubs and one amateur video - show nothing conclusive. "There were glimpses of Simon, but very blurred," Swift says. "The only different angle was from a camera behind the posts but there you were looking through the full-back's legs. We were miles away from standing a case up in a court of law." Yet, London Scottish release pictures of Fenn's lacerated ear and, frustrated by Bath's apparent inaction, cite Bath's front row - Yates, Federico Mendez and Victor Ubogu. Swift is furious. "There is genuinely not a scrap of evidence against them. It's not the way I would have done it."

Tuesday: Yates is suspended by Bath on full pay, though Swift emphasises that the action is not an accusation of guilt. "We are not saying Kevin is guilty; we haven't got the evidence to support that."

Yates denies any involvement, Ubogu consults his lawyers about the citation ("I would have to have had teeth like Dracula to reach him from where I was") and Mendez also protests his innocence. The onus is put back on to Scottish to prove Yates's guilt to the Rugby Football Union. "We've interviewed Kevin three times on three different days," Swift says. "Every time he has maintained his total innocence. He's popular with the players, with the management and he's got a good disciplinary record, but we were confident in our position to put some issues to a disciplinary hearing in a fair way."Swift, anxious not to commit himself in a formal press conference, holds individual interviews. Journalists queue like in a doctor's surgery.

Wednesday: Yates receives guarded support from the England coach, Clive Woodward. "He's a good guy and I wouldn't have thought he had it in him to go round biting people."

Don Foster, the Liberal MP for Bath, criticises the club's handling of the affair, bringing a stinging reaction from Swift. "There is no cover- up. I take it as a personal insult that anyone should suggest so." Andy Robinson disappears to Wales to talk to Neil Jenkins, the Pontypridd fly- half, about a possible transfer. Jeremy Guscott is pencilled in for his first game of the season.

Thursday: Conspiracy theories surface, one suggesting that a London Scottish player might have been involved, another, ventured by Philip Bliss, Bath's honorary surgeon, that the injury could have been caused by studs.

Bliss's suggestion is ridiculed by London Scottish and received coolly by Swift. "The remarks," he says, "were made in a personal capacity." The players meet for an internal meeting. "Andy [Robinson] wanted to lift the players," Swift says. "It's all hit the players very hard. They've been hugely upset by what's happened, by the injury and by the fact that one of their mates has been suspended."

Friday: Mendez is removed from the citation by Scottish. Bath and London Scottish deliver their reports to the RFU. Yates's disciplinary hearings are scheduled for Tuesday [Bath] and Wednesday [RFU], and Swift reflects on a torrid week for his club.

"Something like this takes the stuffing out of the club. The first principles are truth and fairness and only way I can work is to be true to those. The problem comes when you can't get to the truth as quickly as you would like. The image of the club might suffer, but you cannot compromise. You cannot drag someone in and force a confession, nor can you hold a kangaroo court and ruin someone's career."

The Bath management have emerged from a desperate time with integrity intact. Swift has been as co-operative as legally wise, though his club, the club for whom he rewrote the try-scoring records, has been torn apart by the conspiracy of silence in the dressing-room. The mess says little about the new ethics of professionalism. Not the least of the ironies is that Bath, the most professional of clubs in the amateur days, have found the transition to the real thing so painful.

"Players have a lot more to lose now," Swift says. "But I hope, perhaps naively, that honesty and truth are still there." This week might dash that optimism. If the evidence against Yates proves too scanty for a court of law, the case could remain unsolved, marking the final triumph for the spirit of omerta long practised in the "family" club. The onus will then be on Fenn to make a private prosecution, which would be a sorry comment on Bath and the game. "I don't think for a minute we're out of the woods," Swift says. "We've still got a very hard job on our hands."