Harlequins, who came within a late drop goal of cheating their way into last season's Heineken Cup semi-finals, will be permitted to play in the forthcoming tournament — the most prestigious in world rugby — despite further damaging revelations yesterday of their penchant for fake blood capsules and elaborate cover-ups.
They are not out of the woods yet, however. Heineken Cup officials will reconvene next week to decide whether to throw them out of future competitions.
Meanwhile, the Rugby Football Union, which governs the game in England, is preparing to begin its own investigation into Quins' crimes and misdemeanours. Even if the Heineken Cup organisers, European Rugby Cup Ltd, stop short of banning the Londoners from the 2010/11 competition, it is possible that the RFU will refuse to nominate them as one of the English contingent.
At yesterday's meeting in Dublin, the board members “saw no reason to interfere with the participation of Harlequins” in this season's elite tournament, which begins next month and presents them with a series of high-profile fixtures against the likes of Toulouse and Cardiff Blues. Accepting the decision of an independent appeal panel to fine the club £260,000, they were acutely conscious of the difficulties of omitting a team so close to the start of the competition, with sponsorship, broadcasting and travelling supporters' arrangements already in place.
But investigations will continue, with both ERC and RFU officials taking a microscopic look at the actions of senior Harlequins figures implicated in the cover-up. This aspect of the case has yet to be considered by any disciplinary panel. If and when it is, the consequences could be serious.
Eight days after the publication of the Tom Williams dossier — full details of the panel's judgement in the case of the 25-year-old wing who bit on a blood capsule at the behest of his director of rugby, the former England No 8 Dean Richards, as part of an illicit substitution ruse, and then spilled the beans — another 100-page sporting blockbuster landed with a sickening thud on the doorstep of Quins' home in Twickenham.
The document dealt with ERC's appeals against the initial acquittals of Richards and the physiotherapist Steph Brennan, both of whom lied to the original disciplinary panel, and against the leniency of the punishment dished out to the club.
Richards, in particular, was roundly savaged as the “directing mind” of the affair. But the club itself was also heavily criticised by Max Duthie, the solicitor representing ERC. “The club either demonstrated a clear determination to lie or decided to bury its collective head in the sand,” he said, urging the appeal panel to eject Quins from the forthcoming Heineken Cup. “The introduction of the new evidence reveals thatit was a conspiracy. We now also know that this was the last incident in a pattern of offending of this nature, which puts the club's conduct in a more revealing light.”
The document detailed Richards' evidence, including an admission of previous attempts to con officials with fake blood — in one case, an unnamed player mucked up the master plan by accidentally swallowing the capsule — and his staunch refusal to identify those implicated in the scams. Richards, who resigned last month before receiving a three-year suspension from all rugby worldwide, also owned up to “tweaking” statements by Williams and Brennan, who handed the player the capsule during the closing minutes of the narrow defeat by Leinster.
It appears that “Bloodgate” has a long way to run, with the actions of Charles Jillings, who resigned as Harlequins chairman last week, and the chief executive Mark Evans now moving to the top of the agenda. Williams claimed both men put him under pressure not to threaten the club's position by making a full disclosure.