Who Was Involved in the Blood Gate Scandal?

As in all sports, success in rugby is determined by the number of wins a club amasses. For this reason, clubs and players are often willing to go above and beyond including bending and even breaking the rules in order to give their side the edge in a match. While the Laws of the Game and its custodians (match officials) have sought to curb any and all excesses, a few shameful incidents have slipped through the cracks and not only shocked the rugby world but threatened to smear the image that the sport has so carefully crafted for over a century and a half. Of all rugby scandals, the infamous Blood Gate scandal is considered by many to be the biggest and one of if not the lowest points in rugby history.

Who was involved in the Blood Gate scandal? The Blood Gate scandal involved former Harlequins wing Tom Williams, former Harlequins physio Steph Brennan and former Harlequins director of rugby Dean Richards. The incident in question took place when Richards colluded with Brennan to pass a fake blood capsule to Williams in the closing minutes of their 2008–09 Heineken Cup clash against Leinster. Williams then feigned an injury to afford their side an extra substitution by taking advantage of the blood replacement exception.

The Buildup

The European Rugby Champions Cup, more commonly known as the Heineken Cup, is the premier competition for clubs from the top six nations in Europe – England, France, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Italy.

The 2008-09 edition of the Heineken Cup featured six teams from England (Gloucester, Harlequins, Leicester Tigers, London, Wasps, and Bath), eight from France (Toulouse, Stade Français, Clermont, Biarritz, Castres, Sale Sharks, Perpignan and Montauban), and five from Wales (Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Newport Gwent, Scarlets, and Dragons).

Rounding off the list of competitors was three teams from Ireland (Leinster, Ulster, and Munster), two from Italy (Calvisano and Benetton Treviso), and two teams from Scotland (Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh). Of the lot, Cardiff Blues, Toulouse, Leicester Tigers, Bath, Munster, Ospreys, Harlequins, and Leister made it to the quarter-finals setting up a set of clashes including one between the latter two.

Tough Match

Both Harlequins and Leinster topped their respective groups. As such, a match between the two sides was naturally expected to be a hotly-contested affair besides the fact that they had never met before in Europe.

The match lived up to expectations with both teams stifling each other’s attacks for the first 14 minutes of the fixture. Harlequins then committed an infringement prompting the referee to award Leinster a penalty, which was converted by former fly-half Felipe Contepomi.

Leinster intensified their attack in the following minutes while Harlequins attempted to defend and counter with attacks of their own. Leinster’s efforts forced their competitors to commit yet another infringement, earning them a second penalty.

Contepomi successfully converted the penalty to hand his side a 6-0 lead just a minute before the half. Seven minutes into the start of the second half, the fuse to the explosion that would later come to be known as the Blood Gate scandal was lit when fly-half Nick Evans sustained a thigh injury.

The “Architect” and the “Sacrificial Lamb”

Fellow fly-half Chris Malone immediately came on for the injured Evans and Harlequins battled on. Their persistence finally paid off in the 65th minute when fullback Mike Brown scored a try to make the score 6-5 and put his side within reach of a win.

Their victory was however short-lived as Malone pulled his hamstring just two minutes later – a development that left Brown with the kicking duties as he was the next best option. In the 72nd minute of the match, Leinster committed an infringement of their own handing Harlequins a penalty and a chance to go ahead.

Brown stepped up to take the tick but he failed to convert the golden opportunity leaving Harlequins with little to no offensive options as the match drew to a close. Leinster had also fallen back defensively meaning that a drop goal was the only viable option for Harlequins at the time.

For the plan to work, the Harlequins had to create the opportunity for a more experienced kicker since the then seemingly inexperienced Brown had already demonstrated that he was not up to the task. Having an additional kicker was also a smart strategy since Leinster also knew who was most likely to attempt a kick and would have quickly responded to the threat.

Harlequins’ only problem at the time was that they had already exhausted their substitutions leaving them with no opportunity except that provided by the exception to the rule – a blood replacement. It was then that ex-Harlequins chief Dean Richards is believed to have instructed club physio Steph Brennan to inform Williams that he would be “coming off for blood”.

Blowing the Whistle and Failed Cover-up

According to Williams, Brennan approached him a few plays later and gave him a blood capsule that he had previously bought at a joke shop. After a perplexed Williams asked the physio what he was supposed to do, Brennan informed him that put it in his mouth, initiate contact, “chew it” and “go down”.

Williams, who admittedly wanted to impress his boss with his unquestionable loyalty followed the instructions to a tee and sold the injury so perfectly that one of the commentators at the match asked, “Who punched Tom Williams in the mouth”.

Harlequins used the opportunity to bring back fly-half Nick Evans. The last-ditch effort however bore no fruit as Evans went on to miss a drop goal attempt allowing Leinster to hold on to maintain their one-point lead until the final whistle.

During his exit from the pitch, Williams made a suspicious wink at former teammate Jim Evans – an action that caught the eye of Leinster’s club doctor (the late professor Arthur Tanner) who pursued Williams down the tunnel to Harlequins’ changing room, where he was denied try despite repeatedly banging on the door.

Seeking to salvage the situation, the panicking Williams convinced their team doctor, Wendy Chapman, to cut his lower lip to simulate the injury. The action however did little to convince Leinster otherwise.

In a misguided attempt to sweep the incident under the rug, Harlequins allegedly offered Williams to stick to the lie during a subsequent investigation that was conducted by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the European Rugby Cup.

The findings were more than damning with Richards and Brennan being banned for three and two years respectively after it was revealed that the club had used the stunt on more than one occasion in the past to force substitutions.

Williams was given a 12-month ban which was subsequently reduced to four months after an appeal with Harlequins being fined £260,000 for the mistakes of the three principal actors whose actions brought shame to the club and tainted their careers and reputations to date.

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