Richards cast to wilderness as Quins take stock of crisis

As a global ban leaves the coach's career – and his club – in tatters, Chris Hewett reports on a staggering fall from grace
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The Independent Online

A few minutes after the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Harlequins and Leinster last April, the toxic effects of which continue to poison the good name of club rugby in England and show no obvious sign of diminishing, Dean Richards was heard to say: "In this sport, you have to know your rules."

How those words must ring in the Great Shambling Bear's cauliflower ears. Yesterday, only a few hours after receiving a three-year ban from European competition for participating in a laughably inept piece of touchline cheating, he found every other governing body, including the Rugby Football Union and the International Rugby Board, throwing the lawbook at him.

Any hope the former Quins director of rugby might have harboured of gainful employment in some quiet corner of the union business far from the eyes of the multitude disappeared when, within minutes of each other, the RFU and the IRB confirmed that the suspension imposed by a disciplinary panel in Glasgow on Monday night, was subject to "universality" and would cover every last inch of the sport's territory.

Richards, a one-time policeman revered as one of the finest international forwards of his generation and the only coach ever to successfully defend the Heineken Cup – the competition he so notoriously besmirched by overseeing the bogus substitution of the wing Tom Williams with the aid of a blood capsule, and then orchestrating an attempted cover-up – is now off limits until 2012. He cannot so much as guide a colts team through a training session on a wet Tuesday night in his native Leicestershire, far less coach at the top level.

Richards is not the only man licking his wounds as a result of "bloodgate". The physiotherapist Steph Brennan, who recently left Quins to take up a position with the England national team, was banned for two years for his part in the shenanigans and now finds himself suspended from his new job while the RFU carry out a formal review. He may not be long for the Twickenham high life. Williams, meanwhile, is serving a four-month ban, having spilled the beans on the incident to the appeal tribunal in Glasgow, who promptly cut his original punishment by two-thirds.

Williams was a picture of misery as he commented on the affair. "I deeply regret the role I played in this unacceptable incident, which has done so much damage to the image of rugby union," he said. "I will have to live with my actions for the rest of my career. In deciding to come clean and do the right thing, I have honestly tried to rectify this mess and repay the good faith shown in me by my friends and family. I would like to thank the panel for reducing my sanction. However, I also realise the grave error of judgement I made in fabricating my original evidence." He described the episode as a "very stressful period in my life", adding that he hoped no player would ever find himself in a similarly compromised position.

It was Williams' decision to appeal that prompted Richards' resignation, nine days before this week's 14-hour hearing, and also drove the club management to hold an internal review of their employees' touchline procedures, which established that this was far from the first case of substitution chicanery. Indeed, after taking evidence from Quins, the disciplinary panel went on to find Richards and Brennan guilty of four previous offences of "fabricating a wound or blood injury".

The RFU is now awaiting the documentation relating to these incidents before deciding whether or not to take further action. "Bloodgate" could run and run – or, more precisely, gush and gush.

For Richards, a rugby man of great distinction, the humiliation is as complete as the fall from grace is vertical. Twice in the last two years, he has been within touching distance of the coach of the year award; as recently as three years ago, he was the choice of many senior RFU committee men as England's new manager. He might even have landed the job had Harlequins not played hardball on the financial front. Now, he is a sporting leper. His sins were, in quantitative terms, no greater than those of his colleagues who routinely withdraw prop forwards under false pretences to force uncontested scrums on a match, but the method was foolhardy and the execution farcical.

Richards may have been clever in spotting the loophole in the law that enabled his injured goal-kicker Nick Evans to return to the field for one last shot at the Leinster posts – as he said, "you have to know your rules" – but he both insulted the intelligence and offended the sensibilities of the rugby public in doing it the way he did.

And Quins? Where does this leave them? Up a financial gum tree, for starters. The appeal panel's decision not to eject them from this season's Heineken Cup may have saved them from commercial meltdown, but by increasing the fine from the original £215,000, half of it suspended for two years, to something approaching £260,000, to be paid in full by 1 December, they have put the club in a considerable degree of strife. It is by no means clear whether they can afford to replace Richards. Three coaches – John Kingston, Colin Osborne and Tony Diprose – are currently shouldering the burden.

"The fine is a very, very significant penalty," said Mark Evans, the Harlequins chief executive, yesterday. "We'll have to take some steps to be able to meet it. It's been a very gruelling time.

"The club has lost a very talented director of rugby, we're paying a big fine, we have a player banned for four months and we have to take some other internal action. Obviously, that puts the organisation under a great deal of pressure.

"We're not sure yet whether we'll replace Dean. We may, but we haven't considered it at all. We will have a discussion at board level about whether to replace like for like or change the structure and do it internally."

Blood bath: How the key characters have emerged

Dean Richards

The appeal panel banned him from all European rugby activity for three years. Crucially, they also urged other governing bodies to impose a similar suspension from rugby under their jurisdiction. The International Rugby Board and the Rugby Football Union did this yesterday, and as a result, Richards is out of the sport until 2012.

Steph Brennan

The newly appointed England physiotherapist was banned for two years for his part in the fakery and cover-up, along the same lines as Richards. He too is subject to IRB and RFU sanction, although his future will not be decided until his new employers at Twickenham receive full documentation on the case.

Dr Wendy Chapman

A number of legal complexities surrounded the case of Harlequins' match-day medic, and as a consequence, the appeal panel decided they "lacked jurisdiction under the disciplinary rules", dismissing the allegations against her. However, Chapman's position with Quins remains unclear.

Tom Williams

Ultimately, the fall-guy – originally banned for 12 months for biting on the infamous blood capsule while the touchline operators "walked" – became the whistle-blower, lifting the lid on the whole sorry affair. For his pains, the 25- year-old wing saw his suspension cut to four months.

Mark Evans

The highly-regarded chief executive led an internal review into practices and procedures at the club and took the decision to make a full disclosure to the appeal panel. Badly affected by the affair, he is concerned about Quins' immediate financial position. He is not thought to be considering resigning.