Rift opens over 'Bloodgate' fallout

New rules to tackle suspect substitutions fail to heal row between sport's authorities
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The Independent Online

Harlequins are not the only organisation in a sea of strife over the "Bloodgate" scandal, which is spinning so wildly out of control as a result of revelations concerning the club's cynical attempt at a cover-up that there is no knowing where it will leave the club game in England. There is now a serious falling out between the administrators of the Guinness Premiership, where the Londoners play their bread-and-butter rugby, and those who run the Heineken Cup – the tournament besmirched by Quins and their illicit shenanigans last season.

Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby (which runs the Guinness Premiership), was fiercely critical yesterday of the handling of the affair by European Rugby Cup Ltd, the body charged with running the Heineken Cup. In particular, he expressed incredulity at the decision to publish, in isolation, the full detailed judgement in the appeal of Tom Williams, the Quins wing who faked a blood injury at the behest of his boss Dean Richards during the Heineken quarter-final against Leinster in April – an appeal that lifted the lid on the whole murky business of Richards' chicanery and the subsequent cover-up, implicating the likes of the club chairman Charles Jillings and the chief executive Mark Evans into the bargain.

McCafferty was not of a mind to play down the impact of the affair – or that of the allegations of drugs misuse against several Bath players – on the good name of professional club rugby. "We will look back on this summer as a watershed," he said. But he added: "I can't think of another instance in sport, or in general life come to that, where the testimony of only one party is released. We are still awaiting the full details from the ERC appeal panel, yet certain information of great concern to us has already been made available. We do have issues, both with the process and the amount of time it is taking to work through that process. The Harlequins game was played last April. Here we are, a little over a week from the start of a new season, and we still don't know when this will be brought to a conclusion."

The relationship between England's clubs and ERC has never been the easiest, and the continuing fall-out from "Bloodgate" could easily see the two groups grabbing each other by the throat. Just for once, the Rugby Football Union – the governing body of the game in England – has some sympathy for Premier Rugby. Senior figures at Twickenham are also exasperated at the drip-drip release of information relating to the Quins case.

Predictably, McCafferty would not be drawn on the likelihood of further action against the Londoners, who, as a result of the Williams testimony, are at serious risk of new charges of misconduct and of a financially calamitous expulsion from the Heineken Cup. Instead, he concentrated on Premier Rugby's efforts to clean up their clubs' acts on the vexed issue of tactical substitution and injury replacement regulations, abuse of which is at the heart of the current furore. "Words are cheap," he said. "I'm more interested in taking action."

Next week, the Premiership clubs will be expected to throw their weight behind a voluntary code of practice that will allow medical staff from the opposition side to inspect blood wounds of players leaving the field. There will also be a much closer monitoring of substitutions and replacements, although officials tacitly admitted that a watertight system was something akin to an impossibility.

There was also welcome confirmation of direct action against another area of blatant cheating: teams deliberately resorting to uncontested scrums to ease pressure on struggling forward packs. In the Premiership, replacements' benches will now be eight-strong and include a full secondary front row. Should a team still run out of scrummaging forwards, they will have to play the remainder of the game a man short. Worryingly, the Premiership clubs have yet to win the support of their Celtic brethren, although discussions are continuing.