London Welsh are still just about alive after their disciplinary trauma, but they now face a desperate fight to defend their Premiership status after being docked five league points for inadvertently fielding an incorrectly registered player, the scrum-half Tyson Keats, in a series of games before Christmas. The Exiles are now two points adrift of Sale at the foot of the table, with five games remaining.
Last night’s decision, communicated by the Rugby Football Union panel of inquiry chairman, Jeremy Summers, struck a raw nerve with the club, who themselves brought the irregularity to the notice of the governing body following the departure of Mike Scott, their team manager. Scott has been charged with conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game and will face a separate hearing.
“We are hugely disappointed and shocked at the ruling made by the RFU hearings committee, which we believe is extremely harsh under the circumstances,” said Tony Copsey, the London Welsh chief executive. “It is our belief that the ruling is fundamentally flawed and I can confirm that the club will definitely be appealing the decision.”
In an unusually strongly worded statement, the Exiles said they were “unknowingly the victim of one individual’s fraudulent conduct”, pointing out that it was they who “discovered the fraud” and had been “punished on the basis that the club are to blame for what that individual has done”.
When news of the Keats affair broke, London Welsh stressed that the New Zealander was in no way responsible for the situation, which involved a raft of misleading nationality information being filed to the RFU – and a six-hour hearing took place in London on Tuesday. The panel spent two days considering the evidence before deciding on an immediate points deduction.
The panel decided that a similar penalty should be suspended until the end of next season. They also fined the club £15,000. Even though many predicted a stronger sanction – an instant nine-point deduction was thought to be par for the course, despite the Exiles’ honesty in raising the offence to the authorities’ attention and their cooperation in aiding the investigation – the result of the case will hurt them badly. Far from financially secure, they can ill afford any financial hit. Far more worrying is the increased risk of relegation, which would hole them below the waterline in cash terms, given the small crowds at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford, where they play home games.
In his published judgement, Summers described the case as “extraordinary”. He was not exaggerating. The panel heard that Scott falsely informed Keats’ agent that an ancestry visa had been obtained; submitted a false player registration form to the RFU claiming that Keats had been born in Christchurch, England; delayed providing a copy of the player’s passport as proof before submitting an illegible document; and then emailed a passport copy that turned out to be a forgery.
Eventually, Scott sent an email to a club official admitting he had created “one almighty mess” in trying to obtain a visa for Keats “through the back door” and then confessed to Copsey that he had forged documents and repeatedly lied to cover up his actions. The panel was also told that Scott had accepted a caution from the Metropolitan Police, thereby admitting fraud by false representation.
Keats, one of the Exiles’ most influential players this season, played 10 matches under the false registration. He now has an ancestry visa – his maternal grandfather was born in England – and is correctly registered. He played the lion’s share of last Sunday’s match at Saracens, a courageous effort given the weight on his shoulders.
This is not the first time London Welsh have felt a burning need to appeal against an RFU judgement. After winning the second-tier Championship title last season, they were initially denied promotion on grounds that they had failed to meet minimum criteria laid down by the Premiership. They won on appeal, but by then it was barely possible to piece together a competitive top-flight squad, and most felt they would struggle to win a match. As it turned out, they won four league games before Christmas and picked up regular losing bonus points to give themselves a shot at survival.