Dark side of rugby casts shadow in the sunshine

LONDON Thu Sep 24, 2009 9:29am BST

England No.8 Dean Richards smiles during a training session at Wanderers in this June 14, 1995 file photo. REUTERS/Ian Waldie/Files

England No.8 Dean Richards smiles during a training session at Wanderers in this June 14, 1995 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Ian Waldie/Files

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LONDON (Reuters) - In the shade of a hospitality tent at Richmond Rugby Club away from the bright September sunshine, Harlequins captain Will Skinner reflects on the darkest days in his club's history.

Skinner, whose team play at the nearby Stoop, is guest coach of Credit Suisse, one of two dozen corporate teams perspiring freely in the heat at the RCUK charity sevens tournament.

It is a cheerful scene. The teams comprise serious social players with uniform commitment if varying skills. A scattering of spectators enjoy the autumn sun and liberal quantities of beer and wine.

Skinner, an England sevens representative, is relaxed and friendly, even when invited to share his thoughts on the fake blood scandal which has rocked club and country.

"It's probably been the biggest challenge I've faced," he told reporters. "We have done all we can do, it's out of our hands, we just have to take whatever comes."

Last week Harlequins doctor Wendy Chapman was suspended by the General Medical Council (GMC) for cutting the mouth of wing Tom Williams at his request in order to cover up a faked injury during the team's Heineken Cup loss to Leinster this year.

Her suspension follows an admission from Williams that he bit on a fake blood capsule during the Cup quarter-final on April 12, enabling him to leave the field with blood seemingly streaming from his mouth.

KEY FIGURE

Williams's departure allowed Harlequins specialist goalkicker Nick Evans to take the field and give Harlequins the chance of snatching a winning drop goal.

The most prominent casualty of the whole unsavoury affair is Dean Richards, a shambling but unfailingly effective number eight for England, who was director of rugby at Harlequins.

According to a European Rugby Cup investigation, Richards was the key figure in the incident and instrumental in an attempted cover-up. Richards, 46, has been suspended from all rugby for three years and he has conceded that there is no way back into the game which was his life.

Richmond Rugby Club was formed in 1861. Ten years later it became one of the eight founding members of the Rugby Football Union (RFU). It is a sign of the swaggering confidence of the times that nobody thought it necessary to stipulate that it was the English RFU.

In 1895 the RFU faced its first great crisis when the northern clubs split over the issue of compensation for players' loss of earnings. The south remained resolutely amateur while professional rugby league was born in the north.

Exactly a hundred years later the process was reversed. Rugby union bowed to commercial imperatives and the game entered the professional era with all its rewards and problems.

It is the pressure to win at all costs which is being blamed for the scandal at Harlequins and the subsequent clumsy cover-up attempts. Meanwhile, Skinner and his team mates soldier on.

BLACK COMEDY

"It's strange in training, you wouldn't know over the last few months there's been anything," he said.

"When you're training at your training ground it's like a little bubble which is a perfect environment for us. It's not to say we don't care what's going down at the Stoop, it's a case of getting on regardless with the job we have.

"The players can go one of two ways really; it can make the club fall apart or make you come closer together. Even last year we showed how close we were as a group of players in a squad, by the unity that we showed out there."

Harlequins fans have been publicly supportive if privately appalled. In response to the revelation that the fake capsule had been bought at a nearby joke shop, some spectators turned up in Dracula masks for the club's opening premiership game against Wasps.

The upshot was pure black comedy. In the opening minute of the game, Harlequins prop George Robson was sent off for a head butt. The referee's name? Dean Richards.

"One of the lads said there had been one quicker (sending-off)," said Skinner. "But I think he was the quickest in the premiership."

England loose forward James Haskell, who along with father Jonathan helps to organise the sevens tournament, transferred this year from Wasps to Paris club Stade Francais. He expressed incredulity at the manner in which the scandal had escalated.

"For five weeks I had not read a newspaper and we have no TV in our house. I left England when it had just started and then I talked to a lady from Sky television who came out and she told us all about it," Haskell said.

"I had no idea this was going on. I hadn't spoken to any of the boys about it; obviously it's a disappointment that rugby's name has been dragged in. It's a blip, a by-product of professional sport and the pursuit of success."

The charity day concludes with a cocktail party and a dinner hosted by BBC rugby commentator Ian Robertson. For those still standing, a party by invitation only starts at midnight.

Heroic deeds followed by substantial drinking accompanied by songs with dubious lyrics remain the lifeblood of the tens of thousands in England who play, support and watch rugby. Fake blood is a disturbing intrusion, an unwelcome reminder that no sport is immune from professional cheating.

(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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