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Bloodgate brings Deano down

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Simon Austin | 15:15 UK time, Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Some people have cast Dean Richards as the scapegoat after Harlequins' director of rugby took most of the punishment following the "Bloodgate scandal".

Richards, one of the legends of English rugby, was banned from coaching for three years after accepting responsibility for Tom Williams' fake blood injury against Leinster in April.

Former England team-mate Will Carling said Richards was taking the rap for a problem that is rife in the game.

"I am slightly shocked by the hysteria, because people think this is new and has never happened before," Carling told the BBC.

Tom Williams leaves the field with "I would hate it if one guy was hung out to dry while everyone walks away from it and sticks their head in the sand. Let's not leave Dean Richards as a scapegoat."

It's hard to believe this was the first time a team had faked a blood injury to abuse IRB law 3.12, which allows a substitute to replace a player with "a bleeding or open wound".

Eight years ago, former Harlequins director of rugby Dick Best warned: "They (blood capsules) are in common use in the Premiership. I believe they are the same as you'd find on the set of any film with stunt scenes."

His allegations were backed up by Nigel Melville, then director of rugby at Wasps, and Australia's World Cup-winning coach Bob Dwyer.

In his autobiography, Lawrence Dallaglio described how Bath had once used tomato ketchup to get John Callard back onto the field for a conversion attempt against Wasps, while Richard Cockerill revealed in his book "In Your Face" that stitches on his finger had been opened up by England's backroom staff "to take me off for 'blood' just in case it was necessary to bring me back on".

So Best is surprised nothing has been done to stop teams faking blood injuries, adding: "It is still pretty common practice within the game, I understand".

Privately, senior figures at Harlequins argue the problem is "widespread" within the English game and chief executive Mark Evans alluded to abuse of the rules in an open letter to the club's fans last week.

"Some of you will feel that manipulation of the substitution, uncontested scrums and sin binning rules are so widespread in the game that this case has been blown out of all proportion," he wrote.

Yet any sympathy for the plight of either Quins or Richards dissipates when you consider the way they tried to cover up the incident.

In his witness statement to Monday's appeal hearing, Williams revealed his mouth
had been cut with a scalpel to make it look like he had suffered an injury.

In his club blog, Quins and England scrum-half Danny Care then wrote: "I can assure you I saw a big cut in Tom's mouth which needed stitches after the match, so the suggestion the injury was faked is ludicrous."

Harlequins then failed to come clean at the initial disciplinary hearing in July, denying any allegations of foul play. And they were indignant about the £215,000 suspended fine they received, complaining: "We are both surprised and disappointed... the club will consider their position."

European Rugby Cup Ltd did not have sufficient evidence to penalise either Richards, physio Steph Brennan or doctor Wendy Chapman, so Williams was left to carry the can.

Sky footage - which had not been broadcast but was shown at the hearing - showed the 25-year-old taking a capsule out of his sock before bursting it in his mouth in the 75th minute of the Heineken Cup quarter-final.

Live match footage had also shown him leaving the pitch with a red liquid, which didn't look like blood, streaming from his mouth, before infamously winking to his replacement, the fly-half Nick Evans.

The ERC panel gave Williams a draconian 12-month penalty, even though they were sure he had not acted alone. This was a clever move, because it forced the winger to flush out his co-conspirators.

With the support and encouragement of the players' union, the Professional Rugby Players' Association, he appealed against his suspension and vowed to come clean about what had happened at The Stoop.

Richards quickly realised his position had become untenable and resigned on 8 August, while Harlequins were hastily forced into a change of approach. Suddenly they became contrite, pleading not to be thrown out of the Heineken Cup.

"We have got to accept that we have been found guilty of behaviour that cannot be accepted or condoned," Evans wrote to the Quins fans in his open letter. "For that we apologise to you unconditionally."

If Quins and Richards had come clean at the initial hearing, and revealed that their misdemeanour was part of a more institutional problem in the game, the penalties they received would have been more lenient. And their reputations might not have been damaged so much.

So what now for Richards? His ban from coaching in Europe has been extended to all competitions by the RFU.

There is speculation he might still be able to take up a director of rugby role, perhaps in France, because the ban refers only to "coaching". Anyone who has seen Richards at work will know that he doesn't do a lot of coaching, preferring instead taking an overseeing role at training.

The club itself felt the fine of £259,000 was "very significant" but they are privately relieved not to have been thrown out of the Heineken Cup, which they had estimated would have cost £1.5m, or 15% of their annual revenue.

And there is hope the whole episode could help eradicate some of the cheating that Best and Carling claim is so prevalent in the game. The RFU is planning to bring forward a meeting with the Premiership club owners, scheduled for September, to discuss how they should do this.

Then the English game might recover some of the credibility lost during "Bloodgate".

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