The chances of the Heineken Cup suffering a second outbreak of fake blood chicanery over the next eight months may be about as remote as the nearest life-supporting planet – it is difficult to imagine any coach following the Dean Richards guide to touchline management, unless he is certifiably bonkers – but for reasons best known to themselves, the tournament organisers are still leaving themselves vulnerable to a repeat performance. When the competition begins with matches in Gloucester, Belfast and Dublin a week on Friday, doctors who have suspicions over a player's injury will not have the right to carry out their own examinations.
Last April, during the Harlequins versus Leinster quarter-final in south-west London, the home side's wing, Tom Williams, bit on a blood capsule as instructed by Richards, who was desperate to complete a substitution he was not entitled to make. The subsequent controversy and cover-up – followed in turn by a raft of fines, resignations and suspensions – brought one of England's grandest clubs to its knees and left the sport peering into its own soul. Yet had the Leinster doctor, Arthur Tanner, been allowed to inspect Williams's "injury", which he considered deeply questionable from the moment he saw the player leave the field, the cheating would have been exposed immediately and the game might have been spared the worst consequences of a long, drawn-out scandal.
Last month, all 12 clubs in the Guinness Premiership, including Harlequins, agreed to a voluntary protocol for domestic league matches under which doctors from both sides can insist on checking blood injuries for signs of sharp practice. It would have been perfectly easy for Heineken Cup officials to sanction something similar, but at the tournament launch here yesterday, they confirmed there would be so such right of examination for medical staff.
Derek McGrath, the chief executive of European Rugby Cup Ltd, said the measure had been discussed, and then rejected, "We feel the referee should continue to be the man in charge," he said. "If he satisfies himself that an injury is genuine and permits a substitution to take place, that's how it should be. The referee can call over a doctor to look at a wound should he so wish, but we feel it is important that officials continue to officiate."
During the original disciplinary hearing into the Williams affair, Professor Tanner told the tribunal how he had followed the player into a medical room with the intention of inspecting the "cut" to his mouth, only to hear a member of the Harlequins back-room shout for him to be ejected and have the door shut in his face. As a result of ERC's decision not to empower doctors, there could be more door-slamming in the future.
McGrath said he and his organisation had assured themselves that Harlequins were worthy of a place in the forthcoming competition, although his tone suggested that few, if any, of the board members were entirely comfortable with their presence. "What we were faced with was a judgement call," he said. "Harlequins have had a lot to endure as a result of this. They've lost their chairman, their coach and received the biggest ever fine (around £260,000). There is a view out there that they shouldn't be taking part in this season's Heineken Cup, but we've arrived at our decision."
Meanwhile, at least one member of the England coaching team is likely to cross the Channel on Friday night for the Top 14 match between Stade Français and Brive, which could well feature a trio of red-rose internationals dropped from the elite squad during the summer: the flanker James Haskell, the centre Jamie Noon and the outside-half Andy Goode, who has been playing some of his rugby at full-back of late. Haskell, perhaps the biggest casualty in England's cull of exiled players, spoke once again of his desire to return to the national fold.
"No one ever told me that if I came to France, I couldn't play for England," he said. "I was very disappointed to be left out of the squad, but it's a big motivation for me. I'll be more disappointed if I'm not involved at some point this season, especially if I feel I'm playing well and Stade Français are performing strongly."
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