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.


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent