Leading article: A sporting disgrace

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The European Rugby Cup, which runs the Heineken competition, has handed down its verdict on the "bloodgate" scandal. And it has pinned the blame firmly on the Harlequins' former director, Dean Richards, who – it said – was "the directing mind and had central control over everything that happened". This verdict has the advantage, for the sport, that culpability will be confined to Richards and his players. The contamination will be limited.

This does not mean, however, that this affair, which saw a player fake an injury in order to facilitate a substitution, does not have wider ramifications. Almost as shocking as the cheating itself has been the response, first from the Harlequins club and then from the Rugby Football Union, which has been – to put it mildly – complacent and inadequate.

All the club's board has said is that it is "satisfied that Harlequins have behaved properly in the interests of the club, player and other staff". This was despite evidence from the guilty player – even before the ERC's findings – that the club had tried to buy his silence with an offer of a four-year contract and testimonial games. The RFU, for its part, set up a task group to look into the impact of the affair, one of whose principal members, Cecil Duckworth, described what happened as an isolated incident that could be sorted out in double quick time.

Oh yes? If these statements are truly representative of the attitude of rugby in this country then we are looking at a classic episode of minimal action and maximum self-satisfaction. Everything that has emerged so far, and the anecdotal evidence of players and others, strongly suggests that this was no isolated incident. The practice of faking injuries so that late substitutions with specialist players can be made is both widespread and well-established.

Nor is this just a relatively harmless extension of tactical gamesmanship, as some would have it. The basis of all sport is fair play and open competition. Once cheating is allowed to become prevalent, the trust between game and onlookers is broken. Of course, there will always be individual cheats. But what is so troubling about this case is the general culture of complicity that "bloodgate" implies; at very least, blind eyes were turned at every level.

As for consequences, the affair has so far produced a £260,000 fine, the resignations of Richards and the club chairman, Charles Jillings, and the carpeting of the physiotherapist. Yesterday's ERC verdict may have saved rugby union, which once prided itself on its ethical standards, a wider inquiry into cheating. But if the game cannot now take its cue from Harlequins' disgrace to put its house in order, the ERC may not necessarily have done it any favours.

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