Sanctions to follow eligibility inquiry

International Board prepare to take a hard line over 'grannygate'
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The Independent Online

The ramifications, implications and consequences of the can of worms that has been opened following the eligibility scandal in Wales and Scotland are going to prove far-reaching. It will certainly involve the International Rugby Board having to rewrite Regulation Eight which governs eligibility to play for national representative teams.

And IB insiders fully expect the independent judicial panel to take a hard line with the Welsh Rugby Union. The panel have to meet within the next fortnight and are instructed to present their report to the IB within 28 days of that. Stephen Baines, the board's chief executive, suggested that the report would be completed sooner rather than later, perhaps even in a matter of days.

The three-man panel are independent of the board and their members - the South African Senior Counsel (equivalent of Queen's Counsel) Jannie Lubbe, John Spencer the former England and Lions centre and Ronnie Dawson, the former Ireland and Lions captain - have been given a free hand.

Following in their footsteps will be a working party who will spend three months investigating the implications before reporting to the board. Among the matters they will study will be the questions of adoption, step-parenthood, the length of time players can qualify on residential grounds, and when that residence begins.

At the moment it applies only when a person has reached 18, which means someone like Nick Walne, born and brought up for six years in England before spending the next 12 in Wales, having played at every schoolboy and age group level for his adopted country, is not qualified because he went to university in England and has not lived the requisite 36 months in Wales.

The judicial panel will have the serious clout. The members are empowered to call upon whoever they like to establish in each case whether there was a genuine mistake or deliberate deceit and, in the latter, whether the union in question was negligent.

The WRU can expect a fearful grilling. While sources felt that the Wales full-back Shane Howarth and Scotland's David Hilton were guilty of genuine mistakes, Howarth having been brought up in New Zealand under a misconception that his step-grandfather was his natural grandparent and Hilton that his Edinburgh-based grandfather had been born north of the border, the same cannot be said of two other so-called Welshmen.

And while Howarth and Hilton might even be permitted to pick up the pieces of their respective international careers, it is whole lot different for Brett Sinkinson and the South African Tyrone Maullin. It is believed that the board are under pressure from the New Zealand RFU to establish exactly how Sinkinson, a Kiwi, came to find out about his alleged Welsh connection.

In Maullin's case there is likely to be a simple question: Who is the mathematician responsible for deciding that there were 36 months (the statutory period for residential qualification) between his arrival in June 1997 and the award of the first of his three Wales A caps in February this year - 33 months. He officially qualifies this summer.

The panel have the power to take punitive action against the individual players, which could entail the cancellation of their registration, or even a demand for compensation. Anyone found guilty of encouraging a player in a deliberate deceit - and in the professional era it is not cynical to imagine that a player might resort to that with so much pecuniary reward at stake - could even be banned from the game.

But any ban or loss of earnings to a player in a case where that player has been misled by officials flirts with legal wranglings, a road down which the IB most certainly does not want to be dragged.

But since the board insist they cannot police their own regulations - an abdication of responsibility since the unions have shown in two cases so far, that they are not competent to enforce the regulations - it is the unions who face the toughest sanctions. They could be banned for a specified number of matches, be required to play a match or matches behind closed doors, thus losing revenue, replay or forfeit matches, lose points, expelled from a tournament and suspended or expelled from the board.

It does look as if the board will be above question and beyond reproach, especially since they announced member unions will be asked to confirm the eligibility of capped players at senior and A level who have played from 1 January 2000.

That convenient date very neatly sidesteps the issue of the Rugby World Cup, which is the IB's baby. It means that they will not be answerable for situations where the Bachop brothers Stephen and Graeme played against each other for Samoa and Japan respectively, both having previously been capped by New Zealand.

The tournament's most startling statistic was that there were more New Zealand-born players playing for other countries (35) than there were in the All Blacks squad (28 out of 30).

Eligibility was not the only topic covered. It was announced the next World Cup will retain the 20-team format but the opening round would be streamlined. "The preference is for four pools only so there are no quarter-final play-offs," Vernon Pugh, re-elected as chairman, said. Pugh said the final decision on the format was likely to be taken in October.

It was also suggested that the tournament would not again be spread across five countries. Asked whether England had applied to be hosts in 2007, Pugh said there had been informal expressions of interest from both the English and the French. However, he noted that a decision on that tournament was not due until 2002.