Peter Bills: Cowardly ERC leave rugby in ruins

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The Independent Online

There is no longer anyone in professional rugby willing to uphold any longer the cause of right over wrong. A sport once renowned for its impeccable standards of behaviour and discipline has sunk into the trench where some other sports, once derided by rugby as lesser species, have resided for so long. How the mighty have fallen.

The stench from the trench has been hugely magnified by rugby's behaviour in the light of blatant cheating by Harlequins. But what is worse is the pitiful, cowardly response of ERC, the organisation charged with running what was once known as European rugby's premier tournament.

No longer. The Heineken Cup can now be called the Cheats Cup, because Harlequins have been cleared to continue playing in the tournament. Convicted, confessed cheats allowed to play on in a major tournament which they tried to ridicule and destroy by their actions? You just couldn't make this up.

It's hard to know who is the most culpable, the original cheats from the London club or the pathetic creatures sitting in judgement on the ERC board who could not bring themselves to do what every fair-minded person in sport who has retained their honesty and sense of decency knew what was inevitable; namely, remove 'Quins from the Heineken Cup.

Only ERC plus Harlequins and its apologists believe the club should have received the green light to continue playing in a tournament they treated with such disgraceful cynicism. The rest of sport is mystified by this eagerness to welcome back cheats.

But what sort of message does this send to the game and indeed the entire sporting world? Briefly, that rugby tolerates cheats who can expect nothing worse than a financial penalty for their misdemeanours. What a grotesque abrogation of their duties as custodians of the game, what a dereliction of duty.

Of course, ERC did what some always suspected they would do. They chickened out by finding a convenient scapegoat and loading every single ounce of blame for the affair on his shoulders. Most convenient that he had already been thrown out of the game for three years.

But what ERC failed to answer were these questions. Why have Harlequins been allowed to continue in the tournament when so many others apart from Dean Richards have also been involved? How is it that it eventually came out that Harlequins had originally done everything in their power – and we're not talking just about Richards here – to obfuscate, block and frustrate ERC's original enquiry? How is it that they do nothing when other officials named by Tom Williams allegedly offered the player riches to cover it all up and take the rap single handed?

If Harlequins are generally clean and this was all down to Richards, why did the Chairman, Charles Jillings, resign? That very act told you this rotten affair permeated just about every corridor of the London club. At least he, unlike the Chief Executive, was man enough to accept his responsibility and fall on his sword. Rugby in general can have only contempt for a man in the Chief Executive's role who tries to sit on the fence and weave in the wind to avoid any of the blame.

But maybe such behaviour is to be expected of certain individuals. What was not expected was the way ERC capitulated in their duty to uphold the good name of the game and its image of decency. By their actions, they have helped Harlequins destroy that.

Had the appropriate organising body stood up and said 'We simply abhor this behaviour and a very severe example must be made of those who go down this particular road', both ERC and rugby football would at least have salvaged something of its dignity from this shocking affair.

Alas, we have seen the complete opposite from ERC. It is a tragic day for rugby football, the world over.