Peter Bills: ERC's lack of action is dispiriting

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The Independent Online

How sad. How profoundly sad and dispiriting...

Harlequins, a club that has dragged rugby union's uniquely special name into the gutter of the sporting world, have escaped a ban from the Heineken Cup despite the appalling antics of some of their employees. After all, are we not entitled to view the entire episode and behaviour of the London club as a conspiracy to defraud?

ERC, the body that has worked so hard and tirelessly to promote its excellent premier competition, the Heineken Cup, have done immense damage to their own competition by their refusal to invoke the only sanction Harlequins genuinely feared: expulsion from the tournament for a year or two.

They have been spared the ultimate ignominy their cheating more than merited because ERC, a body we had thought would rush to uphold the good name not just of rugby but also its own competitions, have gone wobbly at the crucial moment.

It is my understanding that Harlequins have survived chiefly because senior ERC officials believed it was too late to undo ticketing and travel arrangements affecting the London club in this year's competition. How craven and weak-kneed an attitude is that ?

Instead of focusing on the huge damage to the game and their own tournament by allowing Harlequins to stay, ERC have hidden behind petty details to avoid taking the hard decision. How depressing a scenario..

Just when we thought we had a tournament of true magnitude, an event to hold up before all others in the sporting world that would serve to inspire young people everywhere and attract them to the game, we see an event run by an organisation afraid to ignore all other considerations and just do the right thing for the game.

For this decision went far beyond the confines of ERC, the Heineken Cup or English rugby. A ban, the only truly meaningful punishment for what Harlequins did, would have sent a message loud and clear not just to the entire game but to every individual tempted to cheat in the professional code.

As Lawrence Dallaglio of London Wasps said, Harlequins had their fine increased by just over £40,000 by the second hearing which at last began to unravel some of the truth. Well, big deal. Harlequins will be laughing all the way to the bank about that.

Entry into the Heineken Cup with four guaranteed home games in a season is worth about £1 million each season to a leading club. Had Harlequins been banned from the competition for two years, as any sane, un-biased person would have believed inevitable for their deceit, it would have cost them £2 million. Maybe more, from the damage to their brand name and perhaps sponsors invoking clauses that surely exist in sponsorship agreements about anything detrimental to the sponsoring company's name bringing financial penalties or even possibly termination of the contract.

Was this another reason why ERC defied general belief and refused to ban Harlequins? Were they afraid the club could hit serious financial trouble ? Were they protecting their ‘friends' at the club, people in high places?

For as Dallaglio rightly pointed out, Wasps were thrown out of the competition a few years ago for fielding an ineligible player. Clearly, in the eyes of ERC, that was a more serious offence than blatant cheating of this kind. What are we to make of rugby's muddled values ?

This is simply not a credible decision by ERC. But it is one that reveals they are totally out of touch with the real rugby world and the feeling of genuine anger among so many people who love and support the game.

Are we not further entitled to ask why, if as some allege there was a genuine conspiracy to defraud by Harlequins, ERC have not sent the papers to the police? Such would be a criminal act; why would ERC not wish to comply with the law of the land and ask the police to investigate?

After all, Harlequins have shown little desire to sweep away the whole management structure of their club and start afresh. They have allowed just three individuals to take the entire rap for this tawdry affair. What they are saying is that no-one else at the club, not even a Chief Executive Mark Evans who, throughout all his previous career in the game was a Director of Rugby, ever went into the dressing room, never talked to the players or Director of Rugby and certainly never knew anything at all about this whole issue which has, it now turns out, happened several times previously at the club.

What a mess. The ERC's first Tribunal chickened out of the real issue, beggaring belief by everyone involved in rugby, by accepting that no one except Tom Williams actually did anything wrong. When the rugby world picked itself up from falling about laughing and demanded a re-examination which did not assume that rugby after all was only a minority sport for the mentally-challenged, the next step in this sporting farce was for someone else to put his head on the chopping block.

Step forward the next man to draw the short straw, Dean Richards, rugby's man of steel who was never known to take a step backwards and who's legendary success on and off the field had been based on the transparent simplicity and honesty of his personality. A less likely candidate for the role in which ‘Quins now cast him, as the sole inspiration for rugby athletes to serve their club by running around with capsules in their socks, it is hard to imagine. In fact, if my memory is correct, Dean was famous for wearing his socks around his ankles, because no-one could design a pair of sock to defy gravity around his mighty calves.

But the second Tribunal, perhaps unwittingly, but certainly unavoidably, created a new issue and appear to have turned a blind eye to it. When Richards turned up to avoid cross-examination by pleading guilty, what had been a case of an individual cheating became a conspiracy.

Lastly, perhaps the most astonishing thing of all is that esteemed, international business companies like Etihad Airways, who sponsor Harlequins, and Heineken, who sponsor ERC's premier competition, wish to continue to have their names dragged into this foul, unsavoury affair.