James Lawton: Morals are crushed as rugby's rulers fail to do their job

Professional rugby clubs are, it seems, like banks. They can make up their own rules

Harlequins will not be banned from the European Cup of rugby they would have made utterly meaningless had their systematic cheating brought victory last season because, wait for it, the club might go under, innocent people might lose their jobs and – well, that's it, I'm afraid.

Professional rugby clubs are, it seems, a bit like banks. They can make their own rules, pull every little stroke they can dream up, in this case turn upside down every value which was supposed to make the sport worth pursuing, the most basic honesty being the first victim, but are apparently quite immune from the implications of their behaviour.

They are and they must remain – whatever the cost to anyone's idea of integrity.

The alternative would be that they lose a lot of money, the money of the fans and the investors and the sponsors, some of which Harlequins would, it has been copiously documented, have happily expended on persuading the man caught out as the chief actor in the cheating and the cover-up, the man who bit into the blood capsule, to keep his mouth shut while all this unpleasantness blew itself out in due time.

Rugby, from the top to the squirming bottom of this desperate affair, is in worse shape than we could have imagined when the first grotesque details of Bloodgate began to lap into our consciousness.

That much at least was clear when the panel of the European Rugby Cup produced the Pontius Pilate gear at the moment of judgement yesterday.

It was of course a verdict that could have been anticipated at the distance of several miles.

Yes, of course there would have been inconvenience, abandoned travel bookings and Harlequins' existence would indeed have been threatened. It would have been sad, certainly, if the unscrupulousness of the administration of the club cost the innocent their jobs, but the blame for that would not have rested with the rulers of the sport had they accepted their responsibility to draw a line between right and wrong, and then act accordingly, but the people who hatched up the cheating and then the others who sought to stifle the truth, even to the point of something which didn't seem entirely unadjacent to bribery.

Yes, there are casualties. Charles Jillings, chairman and co-owner, has resigned following the revelation of his attempt to talk Tom Williams, the wing who was initially given a 12-month ban and sole responsibility, into limiting his evidence at a second inquiry, a suggestion that significantly or not was accompanied by a dazzling, but unfortunately not quite dazzling enough, offer of new earnings.

Dean Richards, icon of the game and coach, has been banned for three years despite widespread acknowledgement that he reneged utterly on his responsibility to perform his duties as an honest sportsman rather than a chiselling, bullying desperado, and his lackey, physiotherapist Steph Brennan, has quit his job at the RFU following his two-year-ban for his involvement in Bloodgate.

These are personal disasters, of course, but they are also the consequences when all sense of a duty to a sport, the players, the fans, the youngsters who come into the game with a passion to play sport not devious tricks, is abandoned.

What rugby was obliged to do yesterday was make it clear that Harlequins, for at least one season, had to forfeit their rights and profits in a tournament which has huge fan appeal and which they had, quite coldly and repeatedly, attempted to pervert.

How could rugby stumble into such moral disaster? Rob Andrew, the RFU's director of elite rugby, was yesterday wheeled out to deliver a little homily on the dangers of professionalism and, to state the obvious, say that rugby had for some time been making a pretty poor fist of creating a value system that bore much if any resemblance to the one that was in place when the game put such a store on being amateur.

Before this, Martin Johnson, the England manager, stressed his sympathy for Richards, his old Leicester colleague who had "simply buckled under pretty big pressure". Of course Richards didn't buckle. Buckling is what happens when you cannot deal with the pressure. Richards could deal with the pressure all right, but unfortunately he chose to do it in a way that had to make the blood of most sports-lovers fill with ice. What he could not deal with was exposure – and the reactions it provoked.

Perhaps because there have been some unproven suggestions that cheating has reached into the England team, Johnson was asked if episodes like Bloodgate were widespread. "It is certainly not widespread in my experience as an England player and with the England team as manager," he said. "Have things like this happened before? I think you would be naive to say they hadn't. Is it widespread? No, I don't think it is. Dean has taken a terrible gamble and it's clearly wrong."

In theory, the RFU, the supreme administrators of English rugby, can review all the evidence and decide that Harlequins competing in the European Cup would indeed be a travesty. But no one expects this to happen. By the time the RFU come to make a verdict, the caravan will be on the move, much of the income will have been counted and that line between good and bad, right and wrong, will be as obscure as it was when Harlequins were ordering up the blood capsules.

Harlequins will be part of the tournament they abused with such abandon. Money will have rolled in – and a working morality will still be crushed underfoot.


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