x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Cloud over sponsor deal

With fall-out from the "Bloodgate" scandal refusing to subside, Etihad Airways, the principle sponsor of English Premiership side London Harlequins, yesterday reiterated it has no immediate plans to discuss extending its three-year deal.

The coaches and players of Abu Dhabi Harlequins have travelled to London in the past and benefited from several initiatives to improve their game.
The coaches and players of Abu Dhabi Harlequins have travelled to London in the past and benefited from several initiatives to improve their game.

ABU DHABI // With fall-out from the "Bloodgate" scandal refusing to subside, Etihad Airways, the principle sponsor of English Premiership side London Harlequins, yesterday reiterated it has no immediate plans to discuss extending its three-year deal. "Etihad Airways has a three year deal with Harlequins, which runs until the end of the coming season, and we intend to honour that agreement," read a statement.

Having already seen former director of rugby Dean Richards handed a three-year worldwide coaching ban, and been fined £259,000 for using fake blood capsules to implement a tactical substitution in the closing stages of last season's Heineken Cup defeat to Leinster, the Etihad situation adds to building uncertainty at the turmoil-engulfed club. In addition to adorning team shirts, Etihad branding also runs along the roof of the club's Stoop Stadium - a venue lying directly under the carrier's Abu Dhabi-Heathrow flight-path - and the links have seen an Abu Dhabi Harlequins affiliate created.

Should Etihad choose to severe its links with Quins in the midst of a highly public scandal, doubts could be cast on the local club's fate, a fact which doesn't sit well with Alistair Thompson, Abu Dhabi Quins head coach. "Up until now, the association - and we hope it continues - has been very successful," said Thompson. "We hope it doesn't, but if the [Etihad] sponsorship ends, I hope the affiliation will continue. London Harlequins is a club steeped in history and I'm sure it will bounce back from this very sad and unfortunate incident," added Thompson.

Local coaches, Thompson included, travelled to London last March to learn from their professional counterparts, and the Scot was at pains to stress the exemplary nature of everything he observed during the trip. "We shadowed the coaches and nothing [incriminating] was evident while we were there," said Thompson, who added under-pressure Quins chairman Mark Evans' possible departure would have negative effects on the Abu Dhabi affiliation.

"Mark's been fantastic for Abu Dhabi and Gulf rugby," he said. "He's a huge supporter of the affiliation and has driven several initiatives. It's no secret he's under scrutiny and if Quins lose him, it would only be harmful for our club." The full-scale of the "Bloodgate" cover-up has come to light in recent weeks. Wing Tom Williams' use of a blood capsule to leave the field has tarnished Quins' reputation beyond repair. Williams' own 12-month ban has been reduced to four following a tearful confession, while Richards' coercion of the player, as well as the club's attempt to cover it up, has been greeted with widespread shock throughout the game.

Meanwhile world champions South Africa have recalled Ruan Pienaar at the expense of Frans Steyn for Saturday's Tri Nations game against Australia at Perth. Pienaar, better known as a halfback, was surprisingly named at fullback ahead of Steyn. Earlier this season, the versatile Pienaar lost his place at flyhalf to lethal goalkicker Morne Steyn but coach Peter de Villiers said he was too good a player to leave out.

"Ruan is a brilliant rugby player," De Villiers said. "We want to keep his interest levels high and we can't afford to lose Ruan." Steyn was named in the reserves alongside flanker Schalk Burger, making his comeback from a ban for eye-gouging against the British and Irish Lions in June. The Wallabies, who have suffered a heavy casualty toll and are yet to win a match in this season's series, received some welcome news when James O'Connor and Rocky Elsom were passed fit to be included in a reshuffled side.

O'Connor was named to start at fullback after overcoming a leg injury, while Elsom was cleared to start at blindside flanker after recovering from an ankle problem. Ryan Cross will start at outside centre to allow the versatile Adam Ashley-Cooper to play inside. @Email:emegson@thenational.ae