'Bloodgate' spotlight focuses on Johnson

RFU insists coach goes on the record to defend England against lingering accusations
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The Independent Online

Twickenham officials will seek an immediate assurance from the two most powerful individuals in the England set-up, the manager Martin Johnson and the director of elite rugby Rob Andrew, that the fast-accelerating "Bloodgate" scandal will not engulf the national team. Senior figures at Harlequins, the club at the centre of the affair, are letting it be known that players giving evidence to a recent internal inquiry indicated that fake blood substitutions were not only common in the Guinness Premiership, but were also part and parcel of business at international level – a suggestion that has horrified the governing body.

One member of the Rugby Football Union hierarchy said yesterday: "Allegations that these wholly illicit practices are widespread have been flying around for some weeks now, so in a sense we are not in a radically different place as a result of these latest suggestions. But the mere mention of the England team in such a connection is something we must take very seriously. We have to put this thing to bed, and we will."

Johnson, who took over as manager a year ago, will be asked to state categorically that touch-line cheating – particularly involving blood capsules, the deliberate inflicting of cuts or the opening up of old wounds – has no part in the England operation. Andrew, who oversaw the regimes of Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton before appointing Johnson in controversial circumstances, will be expected to make similar assurances over practices and processes stretching back to 2006.

The next instalment of this tawdry episode is expected tomorrow, with the publication of further judgements arising from the disciplinary hearings into Harlequins' naked cheating during last season's Heineken Cup quarter-final with Leinster. While rugby authorities are praying that the new disclosures are less explosive than those contained in the testimony of Tom Williams, the Quins wing who bit on a blood capsule at the request of his boss Dean Richards and then participated in an elaborate cover-up before deciding to come clean, they are on high alert.

In common with Premier Rugby, the umbrella organisation of the elite English clubs, the RFU is less than impressed by the handling of this affair by European Rugby Cup Ltd, which runs the Heineken Cup and its sister competition, the Challenge Cup. The slow drip-drip of evidence from recent disciplinary hearings involving Harlequins has made it impossible for the authorities to draw a line under the affair and there is some concern that major sponsors will soon start considering taking their money elsewhere.

"Once we get to the end of this, we will be making strong representations to the International Rugby Board as to how to proceed, both in terms of ridding our sport of cheating and in terms of how we deal with such incidents," said the RFU insider. "The regulations are largely in place, as are the sanctions. What is missing is the link between the two. It may be that we need to establish a policing regime, under which every game will have a presiding official with carte blanche to go everywhere and check everything both before and after a match."

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