Peter Bills: Harlequins verdict leaves questions unanswered

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The Independent Online

If the brief foray of Harlequins rugby club into rugby’s legal corridors was intended to answer questions of alleged impropriety by club or individuals, then it has plainly backfired.

At the conclusion of the hearing, more questions remained than had been answered. Further light is unlikely to be shed on this dark affair by the news that the enquiring Tribunal will not publish their findings for a further week. Exactly why, is yet another question that remains unanswered.

Harlequins and their wing Tom Williams were found guilty of fabricating a cut to the player's mouth, thereby enabling them to get onto the field a key player late in their Heineken Cup quarter final match against Leinster in April. The club was fined £215,000, albeit with 50 per cent of the fine suspended for two years. That means if ‘Quins do not transgress again, they will pay just £107,500.

Williams, meanwhile, was suspended for 12 months. But why was Williams handed so draconian a sentence? Until the Tribunal's findings are released are we not left to assume that Williams refused to give evidence and that is why the Tribunal fined Harlequins and absolved every other individual in their club ?

If so, that must be why the whole weight of responsibility descended on the only possible destination, Williams' head.

Harlequins director of rugby Dean Richards and two members of the club's medical team had misconduct complaints dismissed against them.

"It was the view of the committee that this was a very serious offence and one that damaged the reputation of the tournament and of rugby union," said a statement from ERC.

Quite right too. But, er, that was it. Yet the plethora of unanswered questions surely means this affair cannot end here. For example, if the ERC authorities believed it was so serious an offence, why have Harlequins not been suspended from this coming season’s tournament? Surely, such a serious offence merits a ban of some duration or at least the enforcement of a set number of the club’s home games being played behind closed doors.

Frankly, you would have thought an offence regarded with the seriousness that the ERC clearly considered it, had to result in the club’s ban from their tournament for at least one season.

We can but speculate as to why this seemingly inevitable course of supplementary action was ignored.

Now we come to the extraordinary decision to suspend Williams, for an entire year, a decision Professional Rugby Players' Association chief executive Damian Hopley has branded as "extraordinary" and "entirely disproportionate".

In effect, are we not being invited to believe the following? A devious, wicked wing threequarter named Tom Williams, an absolute scoundrel of a chap, concocted all alone a plot to fake a blood injury minutes from the end of Harlequins’ biggest match of their season. Unknown to anyone else at the club and without the slightest intuition or pre-planning on anyone’s part, he faked the injury and went off so that Nick Evans, the club’s best goal kicker who had already been substituted, could return and attempt a winning penalty or drop goal. (He tried the latter but missed and ‘Quins lost by a single point).

Williams alone thought all this up, no-one at the club among either the backroom coaching staff, the medical team or any of the other players knew a thing about it. Or, if you do not subscribe to such a notion, could it be that the Tribunal was thwarted by some manner or means in its desire to get to the truth ?

Yet if Williams alone was the perpetrator, why did he wink at Evans as he left the field? What on earth would such an act imply ? Evans, surely, was completely nonplussed by such a gesture as he clearly knew not a thing about the dastardly plot which was unfolding courtesy solely of his team mate.

If we are being invited to buy up to Harlequins' innocence, it seems extraordinary and a damning indictment of their ability as a club to control their players that one player could enact so roguish a deed that they find themselves in rugby’s court and fined a six figure sum. What for? For failing to control their player?

Yet this cannot be so because the club itself was found guilty of fabricating the injury. Yet if that were the case, then how was it that the greater part of rugby’s justice fell like a ton of bricks on one individual ? After all, what is a fine of £107,500 to a sporting organisation generating a multi million pound turnover each year ?

As m’learned friend might conclude, might there be another reason why the Tribunal arrived at these strange, seemingly inexplicable decisions ?

Would not a proper finding of involvement of individual Club Officials and Officers be a finding of a criminal conspiracy to defraud, necessitating the file to go to the police and perhaps the Crown Prosecution Service ? Might not someone somewhere have concluded that rugby football needed exposure of that kind like a hole in the head ?

Whatever the truth, the wider rugby public who spend considerable sums of money to follow what is now a professional sport, is surely entitled to more detailed explanations of these strange findings and sentences.

The good name and reputation of the game itself demands as much.