Bloodgate: Rugby's Biggest Scandal

By Jack Coleman

While the game of football has been marred by strategic scandals such as Bountygate or Deflategate, many do not know about rugby’s biggest brush with cheating allegations: Bloodgate. 

On April 12, 2009, the English rugby team the Harlequins played a quarter-final match in the Heineken Cup against the Irish Leinster club. Both teams were vying for their first ever European championship, so the stakes had never been higher (this would be like the Bills and Jaguars matching up in the divisional round of the playoffs).

To best understand the scandal of Bloodgate, it is important to first familiarize yourself with how permanent and temporary substitutions work in rugby. 

Rugby Dome- “Up until 1996, substitutions in rugby could only be for injury and those were permanent, but then the laws were changed to allow three tactical substitutions on top of any injuries.

And the team staff must inform the match officials whether a substitution was for injury (meaning the player couldn’t come back) or was tactical where the player is allowed return to the field as a replacement for a blood injury” 

During the quarter final, the Harlequins were steadily plagued with injuries. They lost a key player in Nick Evans, a fly-half, who endured a thigh injury in the second half that resulted in him leaving the pitch in pain. His replacement also was hurt and had to leave the match after pulling a hamstring with ten minutes remaining. With both players on the sideline, the Harlequins were without a specialist kicker. 

“although Nick Evans had an injured thigh, he could still kick a drop goal better than anyone playing… But since Evans had apparently gone off with an injury, under the laws of substitution, he would not be allowed to return to the field.”

Harlequin fans fear not! The team had come prepared for just such circumstances.

“When Evans went off injured, the staff told the match officials that it was a tactical substitution.”

With five minutes left in the game and the Harlequins down by only a point, the ball went dead. It was then that the Harlequins winger, Tom Williams, suffered an injury of his own. Now, the once injured fly-half Nick Evans could make his attempt at a return to play.

“the television cameras turned to the side of the pitch, where the allegedly injured and unable to come back on legally fly-half Nick Evans had his tracksuit off and ready to come back onto the field.

The cameras then switched back to the doctors walking the “injured” winger off the field… That player was conveniently spitting large amounts of “blood” out of his mouth even though the cameras never caught how his injury occurred.”

David Rogers. Getty Images.

Evans’ return was clearly not allowed, but the touchline officials confirmed that his previous substitution had been declared as “tactical” by the Harlequins staff. The refs correctly then allowed Evans to return to play as dictated by the rule book, while everyone watching remained in a state of confusion.

No harm would come from the sketchy substitution, as Evans sent a drop goal wide of the posts with a minute left in the match. 

Back to the injury itself that led to Evan’s substitution. 

“Their team doctor had purchased the blood capsules from a local joke shop to be used when the need arose, and during the quarter-final, the Harlequins coach instructed the doc to get a capsule to Tom Williams (the bleeding player) during a break in play in the second half.

When the winger went down with a fake injury, he popped the capsule into his mouth and bit down hard.

Maybe he was surprised by the way that the fake red liquid filled his mouth. The cameras caught him spitting and spluttering the “blood” onto his chin, and as the winger walked off the field with the cameras trained on his face, he gave a theatrical wink to his teammates on the bench.”

Giphy Images.

Maybe it’s because the outcome of the game didn’t change, but I love everything about this move. First title on the line, key players left injured on the field of play, and secret blood capsules all tied together with a knowing wink. Bloodgate was truly the stuff of sports lore, however, the opposing team’s medics and staff were not as enthusiastic about the move.

“The Leinster medics and staff recognized immediately that the blood was fake, and the standard practice for a blood injury is that the player goes to what they call “the physio room” to get stitched up by the team doctor.

So Tom Williams ran down the tunnel to the physio room, pursued by Leinster backroom staff. They wanted to see this “cut” that had produced so much blood. Some accounts say that tournament officials were also amongst the pursuers, and soon a posse was banging on the door of the physio room while the Harlequins staff held it shut.”

Imagine that scene! Williams knows he fucked up by being involved in the team’s cheating scandal and on top of it, a mob of angry people is banging down the medical room door in hopes of seeing a phantom cut that previously had caused a comical amount of blood to pour from his mouth. With nowhere else to turn, Williams looked to the team doctor for assistance.

“Williams begged the Harlequins team doctor to cut his lip. He was afraid for his playing career if he was caught without any injury.

The doctor refused at first. But eventually, she made an incision inside his mouth because she was worried that Willaims would try to make the cut himself and do worse damage.”

While Leinster did go on to win the match, their investigation into the actions of the Harlequins did not stop there.

“This was the eventual fallout from Bloodgate for the player and physio: The winger was banned for a year, but the term was reduced to four months. This may seem light, but Williams cooperated with the inquiry and told the truth.

The sideline doc who handed over the blood capsules lost his license to practice… He appealed successfully but lost two years of his career through pursuing his case.

The coach was given a three-year ban from the sport, the chairman (and co-owner) of Harlequin resigned his position, and the club was fined 260 thousand pounds.”

While the entirety of this story may seem comical to some, to the sport of rugby and its fans, Bloodgate has continually been described as “rugby’s biggest scandal.”

For more on scumbag coaches and their questionable decisions check out “The Twisted History of Dirty Coaches” out now!