There has been precious little good news circulating around the Twickenham Stoop, rugby union's version of Transylvania, since the start of the "bloodgate" affair just over four months ago, but all bad runs come to an end eventually. Yesterday, the Rugby Football Union gave Harlequins something to celebrate by announcing that no disciplinary action would be taken against players involved in four illicit substitutions of the "fake cut" variety during recent seasons, partly on the grounds that they were merely following orders.
Those orders were issued by the director of rugby Dean Richards, aided and abetted by the physiotherapist Steph Brennan. Both are now serving suspensions, of three and two years respectively, after being found guilty of playing significant roles in the scandal that blew up in the aftermath of last season's narrow Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat by Leinster. On that occasion, the Harlequins wing Tom Williams bit, as instructed, on a blood capsule – a ruse that allowed the specialist goal-kicker Nick Evans to return to the field.
Brennan, who left Quins to take up a position with the England national team and now finds himself out of a job, told a European Rugby Cup tribunal of the four previous acts of chicanery while giving evidence earlier this month, and it was his revelations that persuaded Judge Jeff Blackett, the RFU's chief disciplinary officer, to launch his own study of the shenanigans. Blackett's decision not to pursue either Richards, Brennan or the players involved means Quins can draw a line of sorts under the affair, although they still face embarrassment when ERC publishes its full judgement of the Leinster case over the next few days.
"On each occasion, the decision to use fake blood was made by the team management and not the players themselves," said Blackett. "Mr Richards and Mr Brennan have already been punished significantly." He continued: "The players named by Mr Brennan have not had the opportunity to respond to any allegations against them. Before taking any disciplinary action, a further investigation would be required and it would rely on the co-operation of Mr Brennan and Mr Richards. This would take time and continue to attract comment and speculation, which might further damage reputations."
Blackett also said that as Brennan's evidence resulted from the club's internal inquiry, in which promises of anonymity and immunity from disciplinary proceedings were made, the players might claim abuse of process if action was initiated. He also said such action might deter other players from divulging information to those conducting the RFU's wide-ranging review into this form of cheating.
Meanwhile, the poor bloody infantry (no joke intended) continue their preparations for the new Premiership campaign, which opens with a derby fixture against Wasps on Saturday week. "It's been testing," admitted Will Skinner, the captain – the leading figure in a senior players' group that includes the likes of the England No 8 Nick Easter and the All Black outside-half Nick Evans, but not, apparently, Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee.
"We know we're going to have to take things on the chin: there will be comments and banter wherever we play for the next few months and we're aware of the kinds of things that will be said. But the mood is brilliant, really, really good. I'm not saying that things are being swept under the carpet, but we're a very proud group of players who like being here." Might the role of Williams, whose belated decision to spill the beans to the ERC tribunal led to Richards' resignation, be a source of problems within the playing group? "There are people who feel very loyal to Dean – he had such an influence on so many careers," Skinner replied. "But if I received word of any split, I think it would be squashed pretty quickly."
It is at least possible that Ian McGeechan, who coached the British and Irish Lions in South Africa during the summer but is not currently employed at club level following a less than harmonious departure from Wasps at the back end of last season, will fill in for Richards on a short-term basis. Heavily linked with a move to the ambitious London Scottish club, McGeechan's name has been discussed by the Harlequins board. However, no firm steps will be taken until Mark Evans, the chief executive, returns from holiday.
In the meantime, the coaching team of John Kingston, Colin Osbourne and Tony Diprose are running the show. "I know nothing of any approach to Ian McGeechan," said Kingston. "Do I expect to be consulted? No, unless it encroaches on the work the three of us are doing on the training field. I wouldn't want our roles to be diluted. Under Dean, we were entrusted with total responsibility for coaching and preparation, and for developing the style of rugby we wanted to play."
Harlequins go headhunting: Four who could fill Richards' boots as coach
The greatest Lion of all is a free agent, having left Wasps under a cloud last spring. Strong rumours Quins are considering offering him an 18-month deal.
Most world-wise of the team now in charge at the Stoop. Has rich Premiership experience, having run Richmond and Harlequins at the top level.
Knows all the traps and pitfalls. His spell at Gloucester was productive – consecutive top-of-the-table finishes tell own story – but last months were painful.
Ex-Bristol coach is enjoying life in Burgundy region of France with lowly third-division outfit. But Premiership vacancy is likely to be of interest.Reuse content