Harlequins, one of England's great rugby clubs, never imagined they would experience a worse trauma than the one they suffered in their relegation year of 2005, when the price of Premiership failure was paid in the cold currency of lost jobs.
Now, they know different. When a disciplinary tribunal convenes in Glasgow on Monday to revisit the "bloodgate" scandal that has brought shame and humiliation on the heads of the Londoners, the outcome could ultimately cost them more than £1.5m in fines, legal expenses and lost revenue – enough to drive even the most prosperous of union businesses to the very edge of the precipice.
Already fined £107,000, with another £107,000 suspended for two years, and facing legal bills of at least £200,000 – "We're certainly well into six figures in this area; I just don't know what the first figure will be," admitted one senior member of the club's management – they fear expulsion from all European rugby this season. Such a punishment, last imposed on the French club Agen for throwing a game in 2002, would cost them at least £800,000 in lost ticket sales and contractual readjustments with sponsors and broadcasters. "That's a serious amount of money for a business with an £11m turnover," said the insider. "You'd have to fine Manchester United £25m to have the same impact."
Quins officials will come clean to the tribunal by providing both a chapter-and-verse declaration of the circumstances surrounding the bogus substitution of the wing Tom Williams at the climax of last season's Heineken Cup quarter-final with Leinster – Williams left the field with fake blood pouring from his mouth, a ruse that allowed the injured goal-kicker Nick Evans to return to the field for one last shot at the sticks – and a full account of an internal review of practices and processes at the Stoop that has uncovered what might euphemistically be termed a cavalier attitude towards the laws relating to player replacements.
By taking the "fair cop" approach, albeit six weeks and one hearing later than they might have done, they will do the whole of rugby union a favour. Cheating is as widespread as it is systematic, particularly in the area of substitutions, and if the evidence provided by Quins puts an end to the pantomime pandemic of "stage" injuries – the bite on the blood capsule, the deliberate nicking of a player's eyebrow, the planned opening-up of an old wound, the illicit withdrawal of front-row forwards to force uncontested scrums – the sport will be healthier for it.
Convictions for chicanery of this variety are few and far between, not least because it is devilishly difficult to prove that an injury has been faked, but questionable incidents have been rife for a decade or more. In his autobiography, the former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio tells of a 1996 league game between Wasps and Bath in which a member of the latter team's staff "dabbed a bit of ketchup on a player, rushed him off the field and got [Jon] Callard on". Callard, a specialist marksman who is now England's kicking coach, promptly landed an important late conversion before hot-footing it back to the bench. "Hey ho, you do what you have to do to win," wrote Dallaglio. In 2008, there were mutterings of sharp practice after Wasps went to uncontested scrums during their Premiership Grand Final victory over Leicester in front of a full house at Twickenham. Eyebrows were also raised when, in last season's Heineken Cup semi-final, Leicester were permitted to bring the goal-kicking scrum-half Julien Dupuy back on to the field for the bloodied Dan Hipkiss just in time for the sport's first penalty shoot-out, which the Midlanders duly won. Quins hope they will be given credit for their honesty, especially now that Dean Richards, their high-profile director of rugby, has fallen on his sword. Unfortunately for them, the timing of this embarrassing business could not be worse.
Rugby authorities the world over are weary of being criticised and lampooned for their failures on the disciplinary front – the decision to impose a laughably lenient eight-week ban on the eye-gouging Springbok forward Schalk Burger during this summer's Lions tour of South Africa being only the most recent of the cases in point – and are deeply sensitive to the damaging effects of a year of bad publicity. In England alone, there have been accusations of sexual misconduct against members of the Test squad; the banning of an international tight-head prop, Matt Stevens of Bath, who admitted to a cocaine habit; and a secondary drugs-driven affair that has cost the West Country club the services of four more senior players, all of whom are now serving long suspensions.
The original disciplinary panel delivered its verdict on Harlequins last month, fining the club some £215,000 (half of it suspended) for misconduct and banning Williams for a year while dismissing the case against Richards and two members of the back-room staff – the doctor Wendy Chapman and the physiotherapist Steph Brennan.
However, the notion that Williams brought his blood capsule to the game and used it at a moment of his own choosing remains too laughable for words. Meanwhile, the club could still count on the commercial benefits of participation in the 2009-10 Heineken Cup, despite having dragged the 2008-09 tournament into the swamp.
It is against this volatile background, further charged by Williams' decision to press for a reduction of his suspension, that the disciplinary officer of European Rugby Cup Ltd, Roger O'Connor, has appealed against the leniency of the sanction imposed on the club and the decision to acquit Richards, who resigned last weekend, and the others.
"There is some satisfaction in the fact that we've finally seen a verdict brought home against those who abuse the substitution laws, but there is also a feeling that stronger action is needed, especially in the current climate," said one official close to the case.
Should the appeal panel decided to make an example of Quins, few tears will be shed. Whether or not entirely innocent members of the club's typing pool deserve to lose their jobs because the sums no longer add up is another matter entirely.Reuse content