x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bloodied reputation

Back in the dark ages, when Rugby Union was an amateur sport, bank notes would occasionally be slipped into players' boots as a clandestine payment, an inducement to performers not to defect to the professional code.

Harlequins' Nick Evans could only return to the quarter-final against Leinster via a blood injury substitution. At this point Tom Williams left the pitch with
Harlequins' Nick Evans could only return to the quarter-final against Leinster via a blood injury substitution. At this point Tom Williams left the pitch with "blood" streaming from his mouth.

Back in the dark ages, when Rugby Union was an amateur sport, bank notes would occasionally be slipped into players' boots as a clandestine payment, an inducement to performers not to defect to the professional code. Such payments are no longer necessary, of course, but in view of the bizarre events at Harlequins in Europe's Heineken Cup, it appears old habits die hard.

These days it is not cash finding its way into players' footwear but - if the television pictures from the quarter-final tie in April are to be believed - stage blood, a vial of which was concealed inside winger Tom Williams's sock to enable him to fake injury. Inquiries into the strange case continue, but the Quins' director of rugby Dean Richards has already resigned. Briefly, the facts are these. Harlequins are trailing 6-5 to Leinster with just five minutes of the cup tie to go, and with no recognised kicker on the pitch.

The only way fly-half and drop-goal specialist Nick Evans can return to the action is via a blood injury substitution, at which point Williams leaves the pitch with "blood" streaming from his mouth, and is duly replaced by Evans. As it happens, Evans misses the kick, and Leinster progress to the semi-final, but television cameras catch Williams winking at the bench as he leaves the fray, and later the former British and Irish lion Paul Wallace says he saw Williams reach down into his sock then put his hand to his mouth, the implication being that Williams took the stage blood capsule from his sock and put it in his mouth.

The European Rugby Cup (ERC) have suspended Williams for a year, and fined Quins £215,000 (Dh1.3 million). While Williams is appealing against the severity of his ban, members of the Harlequins medical team are being re-examined by ERC officials who originally exonerated them. An internal inquiry is also taking place at Quins, but none of these investigations will answer what I consider to be key questions.

Firstly, how widespread is the practice of concealing stage blood in order to simulate injury? Is it part of regulation kit along with scrum caps, gum shields and tie-ups? Are other tools of the actor's trade also available; realistic fake scars, detachable limbs, false beard and moustache perhaps? Or was this a one-off case, with Quins seizing the moment to gain an advantage? The logic of the original ERC decision, now being reassessed, is that Williams acted alone, but surely a capsule of fake blood would not be among the items simply hanging around in a rugby club. Somebody must have had to go to the shop and buy the stuff.

My theory is that it was not a premeditated act. It was joke blood - it did not look that convincing in truth - left over from some of those high jinks beloved of rugby players, and someone just took the opportunity to make use of it. If I am right, it makes the case quite eloquently for rugby to grow up. Together with the awful Schalk Burger eye-gouging in the Lions series, and Matt Stevens's cocaine use, the evidence is clear. Rugby Union is an international professional sport now, and prey to the dangers of all such businesses; chiefly participants seeking to gain unfair advantage, or believing fame and riches make them immune to the standards of behaviour of the rest of us.

These are issues rugby will have to come to terms with. How the sport finally resolves the strange affair of the fake blood will tell us how ready for that it is. @Email:mkelner@thenational.ae