Sporting Controversies: Bloodgate and the afternoon that forever stained Harlequins
The Stoop in April 2009 is the scene for the first in a new series looking back at sporting scandals
Tom Williams of Harlequins walks off with physio Steph Brennan to be replaced by team-mate Nick Evans in the closing stages of the 2009 Heineken Cup quarter-final at The Stoop. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Harlequins v Leinster, The Stoop, Sunday, April 12th, 2009.
The stain of ‘Bloodgate’ may never be removed from Harlequins’ colours, a tiny mitigation in the nefarious shenanigans the club’s ultimate failure to illegally manipulate the outcome of the 2009 Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster, a match the Irish province won 6-5.
The vaudeville shtick surrounding fake blood capsules and a theatrical wink lends a retrospective comedic value to the farce but only because Leinster won the match and the Harlequins principals involved were unmasked as cheats and liars.
A synopsis of what transpired is that Harlequins’ replacement Tom Williams bit into a blood capsule provided to him on the pitch by club physiotherapist Steph Brennan, who had bought a supply in a joke shop. It was a tactic that the club had employed on four previous occasions in other matches – on the orders of director of rugby Dean Richards to facilitate the return to the pitch of outhalf Nick Evans five minutes from the end of the game as they chased the one-point deficit.
Harlequins wanted to get their principal playmaker back on the pitch, hoping to engineer a position from which he might attempt a drop goal; so it ensued but hampered by his damaged leg the New Zealander pulled it wide.
As Williams left the pitch, the Hammer House of Horrors synthetic blood oozing like an open sluice gate from his mouth, he winked to a team-mate Jim Evans, before running to the sanctuary of the dressingroom. Panicking as Leinster’s medical team banged on the door looking for access to examine the injury, he pleaded successfully with team doctor Wendy Chapman, who cut his lower lip with a stitch cutter.
The insinuation of wrongdoing was palpable. Stuart Barnes on commentary noted: “Who punched Tom Williams in the mouth? Tom Williams?” Leinster’s operations manager Ronan O’Donnell was animated in his protestations on the sideline, getting into a row with Richards as Evans returned to the pitch for his late cameo.
O’Donnell alerted Leinster’s team doctor, the late Professor Arthur Tanner, to the chicanery, and the medic appreciated instantly that it was fake blood. He requested to inspect Williams’s injury and when denied the pitchside appraisal of the damage, pursued the player and Harlequins doctor, Chapman, to the home dressingroom, only to be denied access.
Leinster’s initial incandescence was softened slightly by the victory. A chance encounter and conversation with former Ireland wing Tyrone Howe, who had been working in the Sky Sports truck, as I made my way from press box to media room cemented the suspicion that there was something shady about Williams’s antics.
They were incongruous with the injury and it jarred even more when weighing the reaction of a player whose team was losing a huge European tie with just five minutes left. Why wink? Who was he winking at? And why did he seem unperturbed? You didn’t have to be a student of vexillology to appreciate the red flag moment.
Richards denied any impropriety in post-match interviews. Sky Sports reporter Graham Simmons asked: “Hand on heart was Tom Williams bleeding when he came off? Richards responded: “He came off with a cut in his mouth. The issue is whether he was injured and you have a right if someone has a cut to bring them off, which is what we decided to do.” Simmons: “Your conscience is clear on that one.” Richards: “Yeah, very much so.”
Richards elected to brazen it out after ERC decided to investigate the events of the day, initially persuading Williams, Brennan and Chapman to toe the line, including corroborating and amending the testimonies to present a uniform account.
A disciplinary hearing was convened, the upshot of which was a worldwide, three-year ban for Richards, and two for Brennan. Williams received a 12-month playing suspension while Chapman was subsequently summoned to a disciplinary hearing by England’s General Medical Council. Harlequins were fined £260,000. The club and the principals involved appealed.
Williams, after seeking independent legal advice, discarded the communal alibi when he broke ranks. In an interview on Will Greenwood’s podcast in 2019 he said: “I was offered things by Harlequins to keep quiet, I was told that me coming out to tell the truth would ruin the club and that people would lose their jobs. But I was being hung out to dry.”
The player’s new evidence, in terms of an affidavit and supplemental statement, was hugely damning. Richards and Brennan briefly challenged the appeal hearing on the grounds of procedure and jurisdiction but after a five-minute adjournment accepted the misconduct complaints.
The Independent Appeals Committee’s 99-page report excoriated Richards, identifying him an unrepentant mastermind of the whole tawdry affair and that he pressured others to do his bidding; to paraphrase the findings, he was accused of trying to cheat and then lie to cover his tracks.
Williams had his ban reduced from 12 to four months and continued playing for the club – he won a European Challenge Cup and an English Premiership title – before retiring in 2015 and joining the coaching staff. He said, when reflecting on the incident: “All I can say to him is that I made a stupid mistake, and I didn’t have the courage of my convictions to stand up to someone. I live with it every day.”
Ugo Monye, who played for Harlequins that day and is now an excellent television pundit, wrote a superb piece in the Guardian on the 10-year anniversary in which he spoke about the stigma and the shame of being known as cheaters by the public, deservedly pilloried for their actions on the day.
“I knew we had done it before but I didn’t know what was happening at the time. That is not me trying to extricate myself, I was as culpable as anyone and ultimately, not only were we cheats [but] we were a laughing stock.”
Monye was one of the senior players who met with Williams. “I know Tom had conversations with Harlequins and they made him an offer of compensation. It was an unconditional offer because anything else would have been blackmail. The offer was to swallow the ban from ERC and be looked after by the club financially.
“We very much left the decision up to Tom and I remember him leaving the meeting saying he was going to accept the offer and take the ban. His name was tarnished no matter what he decided to do but at the same time everyone knew, without the facts coming out at that point, it wasn’t Tom who orchestrated everything and the club was really to blame.
“But the next day having already accepted Harlequins’ offer, he went to ERC and came away with a ban reduced to four months after revealing everything. We were disappointed – not because he told the truth but because it seemed he wanted the best of both worlds: to take the money and to blab.”
Monye teased out various arguments put forward by Williams but later in the piece ventured: “I’m not saying I wished Tom had suffered more – why should he have suffered at all? – but there are other parties involved on that day who I feel desperately sad for. Everyone sympathised with Tom on the day but I’m just not sure about some of his actions thereafter.”
It is ironic that the instigator (Richards) – currently head coach of the Newcastle Falcons – and the perpetrator of the deception (Williams), arguably suffered considerably less in career terms than Brennan, who lost out on his dream position with the England rugby team, and especially team doctor, Chapman, who was dragged into the sorry mess. Fundamentally she shouldn’t have done what she did but her role was inadvertent.
Chapman quit her hospital post as an Accident & Emergency doctor in Maidstone in the wake of a scandal and faced England’s General Medical Council (GMC) to determine if she was fit to continue to practice medicine having been initially suspended for a year.
She had suffered from severe depression prior to the incident and at the time was awaiting test results for breast cancer, for which she subsequently had surgery; it was information that came to light at the medical hearing.
Professor Tanner, Leinster’s team doctor, spoke in her defence at the GMC hearing, with the blessing of both clubs, pointing out that she had been damaged far more than the sport. Chapman admitted to being “ashamed” of succumbing to the pressure to cut Williams and subsequently lying in the ERC hearing. The GMC panel accepted her word that depression had affected her clinical judgment. She was given a warning that was attached to her registration for five years.
Michael Cheika’s Leinster went on to win the Heineken Cup for the first time that season but it still rankled that they could have been cheated out of that moment.
Brian O’Driscoll, who played in the centre that day, said in a radio programme marking the 10th year anniversary of the incident. “”This, for me, is like drug taking. I put that in the same category. I think [Bloodgate] was a disgrace. Irrespective of the individual, the act of trying to take a blood capsule, create a situation that wasn’t real to get a player on is a real form of cheating.”
Harlequins, reputation shredded, were rescued by Conor O’Shea, who managed to introduce the values and culture that put it back together, piece by piece. Monye gives “huge credit” to the Irishman for the manner in which he went about the task but the club will always be besmirched. “He [O’Shea] helped us bring pride back into one of the most famous jerseys in the world, even though that stain will always be there.”