James Lawton: Institutional deceit can destroy game

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The Independent Online

There always had to be the fear that English rugby would make a poor job of handling the arrival of the professional game. All the years of denial that it was reasonable for an outstanding sportsman of modest means to put himself up for hire brought an inevitable backlash – and a frenzy to grab some of the new action.

But then who could have imagined that they could have made quite such a mess of it?

Well, we know now. Bloodgate has luridly filled in all of the grey areas. That and the descent into such barbarity and cynicism that the coach of the reigning world champions South Africa can escape unscathed from his claims of eye-gouging, which is to say threatening the eyesight of an opponent is part of a man's game.

But then for the extent of the moral crisis for the time being we need to go no further than the shame of Harlequins and the inescapable conclusion that Bloodgate, which is horrendous enough in itself, is only part of a much wider culture of institutionalised deceit. One thing it tells us with depressing predictability is that there is no honour among the new breed of cheats, the most representative of whom is now surely the Harlequins wing Tom Williams. For singing like the proverbial canary to this week's investigation into Bloodgate he has managed to reduce his ban from a year to a mere four months. This we are told will limit the damage to his career – as if there is any limit to the questions he has drawn against himself in an episode which, crowned by his self-satisfied wink, makes a parody of sport.

No doubt his success in mitigation, such as it is, will be seen as some kind of triumph by the players association, whose chief Damien Hopley, declared that the original sentence was "disproportionate".

Disproportionate to what? It says a lot about the moral vacuum in which a once proud game now operates that its nearest point of reference was the eight-week ban handed to the South African flanker Schalk Burger for eye-gouging.

Fake blood. Eye-gouging. Systematic cheating. Which right-minded parents would want their son to get within a mile of such a sport in its current form and with it's utterly dysfunctional moral compass?

Certainly there can be no tears for the victims of Williams' decision to come, for want of a better term, clean. The admission of Harlequins' director of rugby and the former icon of the England team, Dean Richards that apart from Bloodgate he was involved in four other attempts to cover up cheating episodes is a withering blow to the image of the game.

It rips down so many of the old certainties enjoyed by the faithful at Twickenham.

Harlequins after all are not some bunch of brash new boys scenting profit on the rugby block. They are supposed to be at the heart of English rugby tradition. Right now you can only say, some heart, some tradition.

Three weeks ago we were asked to celebrate the success of the England campaign to land the 2015 World Cup. We were told, by the fine former England centre Will Greenwood, that it was a wonderful chance to advance the values of the world game.

But what values? What is rugby, especially English rugby at this point, to say about those values? Only, that for the present they do not exist. They have been swept aside in a grotesque attempt to gain an edge, any kind of edge by any kind of means. The rest has been a series of lies.

England's World Cup is six years away. It will take all of that to cleanse the game. It is not something that can be done piecemeal. The requirement is an extremely powerful hose.

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