Peter Bills: European rugby chiefs following a very ‘bloody’ trail
The focus of the northern hemisphere rugby community has inevitably been on the British and Irish Lions, the climax to the Heineken Cup which takes place next weekend and the Guinness Premiership final, which is played at Twickenham today.
But hidden away behind that busy programme of activities lies a potentially less savoury affair. The European rugby authority, ERC, is currently making inquiries into an incident that occurred during the Heineken Cup quarter-final between London Harlequins and Leinster.
All kinds of allegations have been circulating around this match. It should be pointed out straightaway that, at this stage, they remain purely that — allegations. Nothing whatsoever has yet been proven against either individuals or any club.
What we do know is this. Roger O'Connor, European Rugby Cup's disciplinary officer, launched an initial investigation after a misconduct complaint following an incident during ‘Quins quarter-final defeat against Leinster.
ERC’s focus was into the circumstances surrounding the second-half blood substitution of replacement Tom Williams and fly-half Nick Evans’ resulting return to the playing field.
New Zealander Evans, the club’s chief kicker, had gone off injured in the 47th minute, before his replacement Chris Malone, also a proficient kicker, was also injured. Evans though, reappeared after Williams departed late in the game, apparently for a blood injury. Under the laws of the competition, a player who has been withdrawn for tactical reasons cannot then replace another player, unless it is as a blood replacement.
What first aroused suspicions was that, as he left the field, television pictures appeared to show Williams giving Evans a broad wink. By that stage of the game, with ‘Quins trailing 6-5, it was obvious that one drop goal could win the match.
Soon after he went back on, Evans duly attempted the drop, but missed.
The ERC official has taken statements from several sources and all kinds of lurid allegations are now emerging. One is that the ‘blood’ which had apparently forced Williams to leave the field, was not blood at all, but a red liquid similar in appearance.
One specific allegation is that a suspicious official took a swab of that liquid which has now been passed on to ERC officials.
Whatever the truth or otherwise of the allegations, ERC have now decided that the matter should go further, and will present a case against Harlequins.
This raises all kinds of serious consequences, should any or indeed all of the allegations be proven. If Harlequins were found to have deliberately sent a player back onto the field under false pretence, thereby transgressing the rules, the penalties could be very severe indeed.
So serious an allegation as deliberately flouting the laws of the game for personal gain (and, by inference financial reward for the club), would surely attract a most severe and heavy punishment.
As I say, no individual nor the club itself has been charged with any offence. All this remains unproven, merely a series of allegations and nothing more than that.
But there is no doubt, ERC are taking it all mighty seriously. And why not ? A heavy fine and/or even suspension from next season’s Heineken Cup, for which Harlequins have already qualified, could be imposed if the allegations were found to be correct.
Undoubtedly the saddest story of the week was Munster flanker Alan Quinlan’s 12-week suspension for his assault upon the eyes of Leinster captain Leo Cullen in the Heineken Cup semi-final.
That single act of madness has cost Quinlan £38,000, his tour fee with the Lions, but far more importantly, the glory of representing the British and Irish Lions. At 34, this was his one and only chance of ever making a Lions tour and he’s blown it.
I feel a huge sadness for Quinlan but I am 100% certain the disciplinary decision and sentence was correct.
What possessed Quinlan to do it, no-one but he knows. But once Gloucester’s French hooker Olivier Azam had been convicted and given a nine-week ban for a similar offence, the writing was on the wall for Quinlan. He will regret his actions for the rest of his life.