Guinness Premiership: Summer of shame lingers on as clubs get back to work

After a break that began with a punch-up and is ending amid the most shocking – and ongoing – cheating scandal, Chris Hewett looks at how rugby is picking up the pieces
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The Independent Online

The new Premiership campaign is close at hand, but not quite close enough to spare the rugby authorities another outbreak of the pre-season sweats. Between now and Friday night, when Sale take on the reigning champions Leicester in the first fixture of England's elite domestic tournament, the game at large will learn more – much more – about the true nature of Harlequins' cheating and chicanery during and after the now infamous Heineken Cup tie with Leinster. With lashings of fresh embarrassment guaranteed, the forthcoming game at Edgeley Park will have to be seriously good to upstage "Bloodgate".

Today, more detailed accounts of the most recent disciplinary hearings involving Quins and those accused of participating in the fake blood substitution of Tom Williams last April – the former director of rugby Dean Richards, now banned for three years; the physiotherapist Steph Brennan, now banned for two; and the doctor Wendy Chapman, said by the player to himself to have inflicted a real wound in an effort to disguise the fact that Quins had invented one – will be published. There will also be a meeting of the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd, during which the Londoners' place in this season's Heineken Cup will come under the closest scrutiny.

It is far from clear whether the ERC committee members have the collective will to throw Harlequins out of the competition. Some certainly think they should be stripped of Heineken Cup status, but others point to the fact that fixture lists have already been drawn up, television slots sold, flights and hotels booked. Supporters could lose hundreds of pounds if the board suddenly decides that the heavy fine imposed on the Londoners last month is insufficient. That would dent the goodwill of the public even further. Tricky waters? You could say.

Meanwhile, the Rugby Football Union is waiting in the wings, preparing to ransack the sporting library for a book of their own to throw at Quins – and, indeed, anyone else implicated in the increasingly sulphurous saga of dodgy dealing on the touchline. The great and good of Twickenham are incandescent with anger: indeed, the more influential the individual, the angrier he seems to be. Some of the allegations of widespread cheating recently put about by Harlequins insiders desperate to deflect some of the attention from their own club's behaviour are too grisly for words, especially the stuff about anonymous doctors cutting unnamed players before a match as a means of preparing the ground for an illicit substitution during it. If the RFU's recently appointed "task group" uncovers firm evidence of such a practice, there will be hell to pay.

And just by way of rubbing it in, two of the Bath players banned for refusing to take out-of-season drugs tests at the Rec – the former co-captains Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett – will appeal against their suspensions on Monday. Will rugby's summer of shame run deep into the autumn, or even the winter? It is perfectly possible. Only this much is certain: when well-oiled players from Bath and Harlequins engaged in their grubby little pub brawl in London back in May, they thoroughly deserved each other.

If there is any good news, it is that Premier Rugby, the organisation charged with administering the vast majority of top-flight club activity in England, has played something of a blinder in recent days. It led the way on righting the suppurating wrong of uncontested scrums – another area prey to naked cheating – by pushing for expanded replacements' benches and establishing the principle that any side failing to field a full front row at any point during a game should continue with 14 men. It also argued successfully that doctors from both teams be permitted to inspect a blood wound before a substitution takes place. Had such a system been in place last April, the sport would have been saved an awful lot of trauma.

Both Harlequins and Bath have a good deal of restorative work ahead of them, although in the fullness of time, the West Countrymen may well form the view that the events of the second half of last season did them a favour. Indeed, few would die of shock if Bath made the Premiership play-offs for the third consecutive season. They have not exactly gone for the low-profile recruitment approach: Olly Barkley, back from Gloucester, is hardly the least controversial rugby player of all time, while the big-name signing from South Africa, the loose forward Luke Watson, makes Barkley look like Little Bo Peep. But post-apartheid sporting politics will hardly follow Watson all the way to the Rec, and as far as the rest of the squad are concerned, iron discipline is now officially non-negotiable.

If the two "trouble" clubs are in a strange place right now, so too are the likes of Gloucester, Sale, Wasps and Saracens. The first three lost their directors of rugby, together with fistfuls of high-class players, at the end of last season. Saracens did something similar, only earlier. There is not a union soothsayer in the land who can confidently predict how well, or badly, these clubs will perform over the 22-match stretch that lies ahead. If any one of them makes it into the top four, it will be a significant achievement.

By contrast, last year's Grand Finalists – the usual suspects from Leicester and the dark horses from London Irish – are the very definitions of continuity. Both start the campaign with the same hierarchy in place, and while both have lost a decent player or two, their recruitment has been smart. Mind you, it says something about the current state of the game when a troublesome old lag like Richard Cockerill, who caused Sir Clive Woodward no end of grief during his spell in the England team, can extol the virtues of utter blandness and expect to be taken seriously.

"We get up, we train, we go home, we watch telly," remarked Leicester's head coach a few days ago. "We're really very boring." If only everyone could say the same.

If the two "trouble" clubs are in a strange place right now, so too are the likes of Gloucester, Sale, Wasps and Saracens. The first three lost their directors of rugby, together with fistfuls of high-class players, at the end of last season. For their part, Saracens did something similar, only earlier. (Eddie Jones left Vicarage Road abruptly in March as the club took on a distinctly South African flavour). There is not a union soothsayer in the land who can confidently predict how well, or how badly, these teams will perform over the 22-match stretch that lies ahead. If any one of them makes it into the top four, it will be a significant achievement.

New rules: Changes for 2009-10

* Uncontested scrums In the Premiership, teams will name eight replacements rather than seven, including a complete front row of a loose-head prop, a hooker and a tight-head prop. In the event of a team still going to uncontested scrums, they will play a man short.

* Blood injuries The Premiership clubs have agreed that doctors from both competing teams may inspect a blood wound before any substitution is made.

There will be (more) blood

Quins will be hoping that senior players such as Danny Care can come to the fore this year as the club tries to rebuild a future and a reputation after the 'Bloodgate' scandal, which is expected to come alive again today with the publication of yet more disciplinary papers.

The departed

Bath are in rebuild mode after the resignations of several senior players including Michael Lipman, Andrew Higgins and Alex Crockett following their refusal to take drug tests. The arrival of Olly Barkley, Luke Watson and some iron discipline should help restore their fortunes.

Guinness Premiership: Chris Hewett's team-by-team guide to the 2009-2010 season

Bath

Head coach: Steve Meehan

Captain: Michael Claassens

It is hard to imagine a more traumatic 2009: what with the Matt Stevens drugs affair, the debilitating defeat at Leicester in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup and the end-of-season "high" jinks in London, the perennial problems over where the West Countrymen might actually play their rugby seem small beer. They are, however, extremely well coached – Martin Haag will add a good deal in this department – and now they have a match-winning goal-kicker in Olly Barkley. Expect them to challenge.

Warm welcomes: Olly Barkley (Gloucester), Matt Carraro (NSW Waratahs), Nicky Little (Padova), Julian Salvi (ACT Brumbies), Luke Watson (Western Province).

(Not so) fond farewells: Alex Crockett (resigned), Justin Harrison (resigned), Andrew Higgins (resigned), Michael Lipman (resigned).

The tea leaves say: A vigorous third, at least.

Gloucester

Head coach: Bryan Redpath

Captains: Mike Tindall/Gareth Delve

If the promoted academy products – Charlie Sharples and Henry Trinder, Freddie Burns and Dave Lewis – turn out to be as good as some at Kingsholm believe, there could be excitement. There again, the theory that "you win nothing with kids" has more going for it in rugby than it ever did at Old Trafford. Dean Ryan has gone, so the atmosphere might be slightly less Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but Bryan Redpath will do well to match his predecessor.

Warm welcomes: Pierre Capdevielle (Brive), Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu (Bath), Nicky Robinson (Cardiff Blues), Tom Voyce (Wasps).

Fond farewells: Iain Balshaw (Biarritz), Olly Barkley (Bath), Gareth Cooper (Cardiff Blues), Jack Forster (Sale).

The tea leaves say: Seventh has a certain ring to it.

Harlequins

Head coach: John Kingston

Captain: Will Skinner

Crikey, where do we start? If adversity brings out the best in people, Quins will win the Premiership, the Anglo-Welsh Cup and the general election without breaking sweat. The place has been ripped apart by Dean "heavy on the haemoglobin" Richards and is still crumbling under the weight of a cover-up that might have been orchestrated by Nixon's back-room team. John Kingston is a quality coach and positively drips integrity, but it is inconceivable that recent events will not leave their mark. It will be a hard season, just on the joke front.

Warm welcomes: John Andress (Exeter), Gonzalo Camacho (Buenos Aires), Rory Clegg (Newcastle), James Johnston (Ponsonby).

Fond farewells: Andy Gomarsall (Leeds), Chris Malone (London Irish), Mike Ross (Leinster), Epi Taione (Racing Metro).

The tea leaves say: As low as eighth.

Leeds

Director of rugby: Andy Key

Captain: Marco Wentzel

Short on quality they may be, but the Yorkshiremen will be long on attitude if Neil Back's coaching has anything to do with it, which it has. Defensively, they should be resolute, and in Premiership rugby, those teams who refuse to let 'em through do well. Not that they can finish in the top half. Survival is the aim, and if Headingley is as unwelcoming as it was half a dozen seasons ago, when Phil Davies' side earned Heineken Cup qualification, they could keep their elite status.

Warm welcomes: Henry Fa'afili (Biarritz), Ceiron Thomas (Scarlets), Alfie To'oala (Bristol), Marco Wentzel (Leicester).

Fond farewells: Tom Biggs (Newcastle), Alberto Di Bernardo (Bourgoin), Jon Dunbar (Bourgoin), Rob Vickerman (Newcastle).

The tea leaves say: A triumphant 11th.

Leicester

Head coach: Richard Cockerill

Captain: Geordan Murphy

Any club losing an international hooker in Benjamin Kayser, a match-winning scrum-half in Julien Dupuy and a leader as revered as Martin Corry might be expected to struggle, but the champions don't do struggling. The usual balance of cauliflower-faced experience and youthful brilliance is in evidence – great things are expected of the 20-year-old half-back Ben Youngs – and with the Welford Road capacity up to 24,000, few will leave having experienced anything other than a thorough seeing-to. A major force. Again.

Warm welcomes: Anthony Allen (Gloucester), James Grindal (Newcastle), Geoff Parling (Newcastle), Billy Twelvetrees (Bedford).

Fond farewells: Martin Corry (retired), Julien Dupuy (Stade Français), Ayoola Erinle (Biarritz), Benjamin Kayser (Stade Français).

The tea leaves say: Second, maybe better.

London Irish

Head coach: Toby Booth

Captain: Bob Casey

The only thing stopping the Exiles delivering on expectations will be the weight of expectation itself. Bob Casey's band of brothers bring so much energy to their rugby, together with a clear sense of direction, that it is difficult to see them failing to make the play-offs. They have not been the best at fighting on two fronts, so Heineken Cup commitments will be a concern – but they would rather have that concern than not. Ryan Lamb holds the key. If Mike Catt knocks him into shape, all things are possible.

Warm welcomes: Paulica Ion (Bath), Ryan Lamb (Gloucester), Andy Perry (Newcastle), George Stowers (Kobe).

Fond farewells: Warren Fury (Wasps), James Hudson (Newcastle), Tonga Lea'aetoa (Toulon), Richard Skuse (Saracens).

The tea leaves say: Top of the pile.

Newcastle

Director of rugby: Steve Bates

Captain: Carl Hayman

One of the many imponderables in this season's tournament, the Tynesiders can at least be expected to do things differently. They have finally seen the last of the Wilkinson back-line generation, including the great horizontalist himself, and are in the process of creating something new. No fewer than 23 players have gone and 17 have arrived. The southern hemisphere recruits, Jimmy Gopperth and Gcobani Bobo, will be effective enough, and as Kingston Park still feels like nowheresville to most visitors, home points should be forthcoming.

Warm welcomes: Charlie Amesbury (Harlequins), Gcobani Bobo (Western Province), Jimmy Gopperth (North Harbour), Filipo Levi (Ospreys).

Fond farewells: Tom May (Toulon), Jamie Noon (Brive), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon), David Wilson (Bath).

The tea leaves say: An honourable ninth.

Northampton

Director of rugby: Jim Mallinder

Captain: Dylan Hartley

A serious club with serious intentions, the Saints are well placed – partly through their own efforts, partly because of lapses elsewhere – to break into the top four. Shane Geraghty is a big capture and Phil Dowson will work his socks off. But the real result is the signing of Dan Vickerman. Everything is in place, including sell-out crowds at Franklin's Gardens, which is already difficult for visitors. They may not win the title, but they'll have a say in who does.

Warm welcomes: Phil Dowson (Newcastle), Shane Geraghty (London Irish), Brian Mujati (Western Province), Dan Vickerman (Cambridge Univ).

Fond farewells: Sean Lamont (Scarlets), Matt Lord (retired), Tom Smith (retired), Barry Stewart (retired).

The tea leaves say: Top four and threatening.

Sale

Director of rugby: Kingsley Jones

Captain: Dean Schofield

A question: how can a team from a union backwater lose three of the most potent players in world rugby – McAlister, Chabal, Fernandez Lobbe – and expect to prosper? With the best will in the world, they can't, especially as the end-of-season exodus also included the likes of Sébastien Bruno, Lionel Faure and Jason White. Philippe Saint-André went too, leaving Kingsley Jones in charge. The Welshman is an optimistic sort, which is just as well. Anyone with a negative streak might find life at Edgeley Park too much to bear.

Warm welcomes: Ben Cohen (Brive), Sisa Koyamaibole (Toulon), David Seymour (Saracens), Mahroni Schwalger (Scarlets).

Fond farewells: Sébastien Bruno (Toulon), Sébastien Chabal (Racing Metro), Juan-Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Toulon), Luke McAlister (North Harbour).

The tea leaves say: A sorry 10th.

Saracens

Director of rugby: Brendan Venter

Captain: Steve Borthwick

Saracens deny that they are Little South Africa, but the names suggest otherwise: Wikus, Frik, Ernst, Ethienne and Schalk are not generally associated with families with deep Home Counties roots. There again, Noah Cato is very definitely English. The clear-out of players last season was spectacularly mishandled, but Brendan Venter is nobody's mug and it may be his up-and-at-'em management will bear fruit. There's serious talent in this squad.

Warm welcomes: Schalk Brits (Western Province), Ernst Joubert (Golden Lions), Carlos Nieto (Gloucester), Ethienne Reynecke (Golden Lions).

Fond farewells: Andy Farrell (retired), Cencus Johnston (Toulouse), Ben Skirving (Bath), Cobus Visagie (retired).

The tea leaves say: Fifth or sixth.

Wasps

Director of rugby: Tony Hanks

Captain: Tom Rees

Someone, somewhere thought it a good idea to give Ian McGeechan the heave-ho. Does it seem such a clever plan now, in the cold light of a new season? Probably not, but there is no going back. Tony Hanks at least has a good idea of what makes Wasps tick, while Shaun Edwards is still in place as head coach. If the outstanding flanker Tom Rees can stay fit, there should be more high points than low ones, especially with Joe Simpson and Danny Cipriani pulling the strings from half-back and some hot new recruits on the wing in Tom Varndell and David Lemi, perhaps the best finishers in the domestic game.

Warm welcomes: Steve Kefu (Castres), David Lemi (Bristol), Tom Varndell (Leicester), Dan Ward-Smith (Bristol).

Fond farewells: Riki Flutey (Brive), James Haskell (Stade Français), Josh Lewsey (retired), Tom Palmer (Stade Français).

The tea leaves say: As per Saracens.

Worcester

Director of rugby: Mike Ruddock

Captain: Pat Sanderson

With so many clubs in flux, this should be Worcester's season, the campaign in which they finally give Cecil Duckworth a proper return on his investment by breaking into the top half of the table. Unfortunately, the high point of eighth in 2006 looks beyond them. Recruitment has not been much to write home about and Sixways is not the awkward venue it was. Everything depends on Chris Latham and Sam Tuitupou staying fit, and the kids growing up fast.

Warm welcomes: Adam Black (Newport-Gwent Dragons), Calum MacRae (Edinburgh), Olivier Sourgens (Begles-Bordeaux), Willie Walker (Gloucester).

Fond farewells: Loki Crichton (Suntory), Chris Horsman (retired), Hal Luscombe (retired), Matthew Powell (retired).

The tea leaves say: Bottom is a distinct possibility.

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