It started, in a way, at a joke shop at Clapham Junction, but it stopped being a joke weeks ago. Now, it is the most unfunny thing in the rugby world, and it will be many months -- perhaps years -- before Harlequins start laughing again.
Yesterday's publication of the evidence presented by their wing, Tom Williams, to a disciplinary tribunal investigating the 'Bloodgate' scandal is the most embarrassing ever levelled at a professional club anywhere in the sport.
Fighting to reduce a 12-month suspension imposed for his role in the affair -- Williams bit on a blood capsule in the closing stages of his club's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster last April, thereby allowing the goal-kicker Nick Evans to return to the field for one last illicit shot at goal -- the 25-year-old player spilled beans all over the most senior figures at the Stoop: the director of rugby Dean Richards, who resigned as a result of Williams' decision to appeal; Charles Jillings, the chairman; and Mark Evans, the chief executive. The fall-out is nowhere near finished.
During his testimony, Williams made the following accusations:
The tactics used by the Harlequins hierarchy will leave the club open to the fiercest criticism.
"Mark Evans' suggestion that I pursue a limited type of appeal was contrary to my own feelings and my advice," said Williams, who did not have independent legal support at the initial hearing. "I now had a dilemma and it weighed heavily on my mind.
"The club preferred that I should appeal on much more limited grounds, which focused on the length of my ban. This would minimise the club's exposure. I had no desire to harm the club, but at the same time I wanted the truth to be told. I had lied so far on the club's directions and this had resulted in a 12-month ban. I decided I would not allow the club to make me lie again."
In early August, Williams received a voicemail apology from Richards. He then met Jillings at the offices of the Professional Rugby Players' Association in Twickenham, less than a mile from the crime scene of the Stoop.
Jillings made an astonishing offer.
"He started by apologising to me for the position I had been placed in," Williams said. "I am sure he was sincere. Charles then laid out a compensation offer to me. This consisted of payment of my salary while I was suspended, an assurance that I would be selected for the team on merit once my suspension ended, a two-year contract extension, a testimonial, a three-year employment opportunity with the club after I retired from playing and an assurance that he would take a direct interest in my post-rugby career.
"He asked me what I was planning to do in relation to an appeal. Damian Hopley (the PRA chief executive) replied that I was appealing on a full-disclosure basis. Charles told me that he thought I should appeal, but it should be on a limited basis that focused on the sanction and not the findings of fact.
"Charles said that if the ERC decided to convene a personal hearing and questions were asked of me that might incriminate the other parties I could simply refuse to answer those questions. At the end of the meeting, I agreed to consider what he had said."
Williams told the panel that he felt under intense pressure not to make the full disclosure to which he had committed himself. But after having a compensation package of his own design -- including the paying-off of a mortgage on the house he owned with his girlfriend -- rejected by Harlequins, followed by series of further discussions, he decided to press ahead.
According to Williams, he began to feel angry at the situation in which he found himself the moment the Leinster game ended.
"It did not take long for news to filter through that we had lost the game 6-5," he told the tribunal. "I was devastated. I also grew increasingly angry about what had happened to me. I had hoped for an opportunity to make a positive impact on the match and to help my club win a famous victory. Instead, I had been required to cheat and had been placed in an impossible position."
The ERC authorities plan to publish their judgment in the cases against Richards, Brennan and the club over the next few days.
More humiliation is guaranteed. (© Independent News Service)