The all-enveloping scandal surrounding Harlequins and their recent dodgy dealings, which run from blatant cheating to an elaborate cover-up with a catalogue of other sporting crimes and misdemeanours in between, may take a serious turn for the worse next week when Heineken Cup board members meet to discuss the Londoners' immediate future in Europe's elite competition. If Quins are dropped from the forthcoming tournament, which begins in October, the financial consequences will be catastrophic.
As things stand, the club is scheduled to participate in the pool stage alongside two major crowd-pulling opponents – Toulouse and Cardiff Blues – plus Sale, another Premiership team. They might have been thrown out last week by an independent European Rugby Cup disciplinary panel investigating the so-called "Bloodgate" affair, but escaped with a heavy fine of almost £260,000. However, senior ERC figures indicated yesterday that there was no guarantee the decision would hold.
Next week's meeting of the ERC board will have "Bloodgate" at the top of its agenda and some members believe there has been far too much leniency shown to a club dragging the good name of the sport through the mud almost on a daily basis. The shock-and-awe reaction to Tuesday's publication of the evidence given by the Harlequins wing Tom Williams, who bit on a blood capsule at the behest of his director of rugby Dean Richards during the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster last April, has upped the ante to such a degree that expulsion is now considered a strong possibility.
Much depends on the detail contained in the next bulletin from the ERC disciplinarians – the full judgements of the cases against Richards, who received a three-year worldwide ban from rugby for plotting the blood capsule operation; against the physiotherapist Steph Brennan, handed a two-year suspension for his prominent part in the shenanigans; Dr Wendy Chapman, who was alleged to have deliberately cut Williams' lip at his own request as a ruse to fox those officials suspicious that the original "injury" had been faked, but had her case dismissed; and the club itself, which was found vicariously liable for the conduct of its employees. If the facts are anywhere near as damning as those that came to light as a result of the Williams hearing, Quins will be easy prey for the hawks on the board.
Yesterday evening, the Quins board released a startling statement saying its members were satisfied that the club "behaved appropriately" during the period between the initial disciplinary hearing on 20 July, when a tissue of lies were told by Williams and Richards among others, and the later hearing on 17 August at which the truth emerged. The board added that no further comment would be made until the remaining judgements had been published.
Even if the club avoids expulsion, this almighty row is unlikely to die down. With Richards already gone from the Stoop – having flatly denied any wrongdoing at the initial disciplinary hearing, the former policeman and England No 8 resigned when Williams decided to make a full disclosure in an effort to reduce the length of his own one-year suspension – two more members of the Quins hierarchy, the chairman and principal shareholder Charles Jillings and the chief executive Mark Evans, are coming under the most intense pressure to leave.
According to Williams' testimony, Jillings offered him a handsome "compensation" package – a contract extension, a testimonial and a guarantee of future employment at the Stoop – while attempting to persuade him to appeal against sentence on limited grounds that would minimise the club's exposure, rather than make a full disclosure that would lay bare the true extent of the chicanery. Evans, meanwhile, was said to have told Williams' solicitor, Owen Eastwood, that Williams "would be regarded by others as the person responsible" (for the difficulties in which Quins would find themselves as a result of his evidence) and that it would be "extremely difficult" for him at the club should he press ahead.
Evans has since spearheaded an internal review of the club's processes and practices and it was he who helped alert the authorities to the alarming level of "touch-line cheating" surrounding substitutions at the Stoop and, indeed, at rival clubs. He is currently taking a delayed holiday in France.
Meanwhile, Quins have their own governing body, the Rugby Football Union, to worry about. The RFU decided against taking further action against the club following the last of the ERC hearings, but senior figures at Twickenham had no idea of the scale of the attempted cover-up, nor of the kind of tactics used, until the detail of Williams' testimony was released on Tuesday. They were both flabbergasted and infuriated by the player's evidence and immediately announced that they would reconsider their position as soon as they were in possession of the full case documentation.
Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive, declined to discuss the specifics of the Harlequins affair yesterday, but he left none of his audience in any doubt as to his alarm at the tidal wave of bad publicity in recent months – not just that generated by "Bloodgate", but by the allegations of drug misuse levelled at a number of Bath players.
"It has been an immensely disappointing summer," said Baron, who was attending the launch of the new 12-team RFU Championship for second division sides aiming to break into the Premiership. "I'm setting up a taskforce to look into all aspects of what has been happening: a heavyweight group of people – experienced, professional senior people who will leave no stone unturned. If we need to change rules and regulations as a result of recent events, we will.
"None of us can say 'It's nothing to do with me'. It's to do with us all. The pressure to win is now massive, but we cannot allow the benefits of professionalism, which have been enormous, to replace the values at the heart of the sport. There has been a slippage in standards, and it is important that we remind everyone involved in rugby of what we consider our standards to be."
There will be blood: What happens next
Q. Will Harlequins play in the next season's Heineken Cup?
A. They are in the draw as of now, but the European Rugby Cup board is deeply unhappy at the continuing fall-out from the affair and will revisit the decision to rubber-stamp their participation at a meeting next week.
Q. Will the Rugby Football Union take its own action against Quins?
A. If anything, the RFU is even more furious than ERC. Depending on what new information comes to light over the next few days, the Twickenham disciplinarians could charge Quins with behaviour prejudicial to the interests of the game – and throw the book at them.
Q. Will the Harlequins chairman Charles Jillings and chief executive Mark Evans survive?
A. They'll need very thick skins. The club supports them at present, but then Jillings owns a large chunk of it and Evans runs it. More revelations would make their positions very difficult.
Chris HewettReuse content