The Big Question: How severely has rugby union been damaged by 'Bloodgate'?
Friday 28 August 2009
Why are we asking this now?
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) has been shaken to its foundations by an extraordinary scandal. Harlequins, one of the most eminent clubs in the sport, are facing the prospect of meltdown after it emerged that Tom Williams, a winger at the club, used a fake blood capsule during a Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster, in a bid to permit a substitution that otherwise would not have happened. The publicity surrounding the fall-out has damaged the sport severely, and Harlequins have been thrown into turmoil by the loss of its director of rugby and the publication this week of Williams' evidence to the European Rugby Cup (ERC).
What actually happened?
The calculated theatricality of Williams' performance, the incriminating television footage (including a conspiratorial wink to his touchline as he was led off the field), and the degree of complicity from officials thought to be among the most reputable in the professional game make this scandal hard for fans to digest.
In short, five minutes before the end of a crucial European Cup quarter-final on 12 April, Williams was ordered to chew on a capsule of red dye bought from a joke shop in Clapham Junction, south London, in order to give the appearance of his having been injured. He had kept the capsule in his sock. This fake injury enabled the club to bring on a specialist kicker who could try and win the game for them. The cheating was orchestrated by Dean Richards, the club's director of rugby, who was one of the most revered figures in the game.
When Leinster's doctor grew suspicious, however, Williams asked Wendy Chapman, Harlequins' match day doctor, to cut the inside of his mouth with a scalpel, which he alleges had to be done twice. But, allegedly fearing repercussions for her own medical career, Chapman later met Williams and agreed that he would say he had cut himself (though he later changed his mind).
Why is Williams' testimony so contentious?
Mainly because, in an explosive 38 pages, he claims that after he decided to appeal a 12-month ban from rugby authorities for cheating, he was offered a lucrative compensation package to keep his mouth shut. He was offered a two-year extension to his contract, a money-making testimonial, and a guarantee of three years' work after his retirement. He was also told that if he provided full disclosure he would, in effect, bring to its knees one of the great clubs in rugby history.
How did all this come to light?
On 17 April, five days after the incident, the tournament organisers, ERC, opened an investigation into the substitution. They were responding to rumours initially promulgated by Leinster's medical team. On 23 May, Leinster, the intended victims of the deception, won the Heineken Cup. On 20 July, Harlequins were fined and Williams banned for 12 months, while complaints against Richards and two members of the Harlequins medical team were dismissed. Throughout the saga, the evidence provided by video footage proved irrefutable.
It was only on 3 August that Richards tendered his own resignation, and a fortnight later that in interviews with friends from his playing days he broke cover about his regret over the incident (including his regret in getting caught). But it is only with this week's dossier from Williams that the full depth of the scandal began to emerge.
Who are the culprits and have they been punished?
Like with the original "gate" (which led to the impeachment of President Nixon), those involved in the conspiracy go right to the top. Steph Brennan, the club physio who helped a groggy-looking Williams off the pitch, was banned for two years and resigned from his new role as England physio last week. Richards, once revered for his professionalism, resigned in disgrace on 8 August and has been issued with a three-year ban from coaching anywhere in the world. Some dissenters claim that he should appeal through the civil courts against the ban, on the grounds of restraint of trade.
Chapman was cleared of wrongdoing but could face disciplinary action from medical authorities. Mark Evans and Charles Jillings, chief executive and chairman of the club respectively, face serious questions about their future over the next few days. Williams' own ban, meanwhile, was reduced from twelve to four months because of his full co-operation with authorities investigating the matter.
What about disciplinary action for the club?
There has been plenty of it. On top of the ban for Richards, the ERC imposed a £260,000 fine on Harlequins. The RFU are awaiting any further revelations from the four judgments still to emerge from an ongoing hearing. Judge Jeff Blackett, the union's disciplinary officer, said: "If ERC finish the process and decide they have taken it far enough, and decide it comes back to the RFU, these things will take a certain time."
But under rule 5.12 of its guidelines, the RFU has the power to discipline any club, official, or player for a breach of its rules with a range of punishments, which include compensation for the victim; relegation from the league; deduction of league points; disqualification from any competition; a financial penalty; and – most severely – exclusion from RFU membership.
For now, Harlequins remain one of England's seven Heineken Cup nominees. But further evidence of misconduct, though it could hardly be as shocking or revelatory as Williams' testimony, could challenge that exalted status. A board meeting of the ERC next week will review the situation.
So what next for Harlequins?
Jillings and Evans will need very thick skins to survive. Harlequins had been under considerable financial pressure even before this scandal broke. The club loses around £1m a year, and has net debts of £14m, which makes the £260,000 fine a very significant sum.
It is owned by the Australian financier Duncan Saville and Jillings together, with the former understood to be the larger shareholder. They control the club via a series of off-shore entities, and the ultimate holding company is Guernsey-based Mosaic Limited, which made an interest-free loan of £8.65m to the club.
To make things worse, the club recently added £6.5m to its bank debt to finance the redevelopment of the South Stand at the Stoop stadium in Twickenham, which was meant to open this year. And it has spent £750,000 on 150 debenture seats too. Under such commercial pressure, the last thing the club needed was this scandal. Its main task now is to restore authoritative leadership; once that is in place, the business of restoring trust and prestige can begin. But nobody expects it to be a quick fix.
Will Harlequins and rugby union be able to restore their reputations?
* To a greater or lesser degree all sports are marred by accusations of cheating; rugby is no exception.
* The RFU and ERC have taken stringent measures to discipline those involved in the scandal.
* By highlighting one case in a very public way, "Bloodgate" could scare off other potential cheats.
* The sheer scale of this scandal, which has implicated revered figures, has shocked the public.
* The presence of incriminating footage will guarantee replays for years hereafter.
* There is more to come; we've still not heard from other witnesses whose testimony could be revelatory.
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