European rugby bosses are tightening up on player discipline ahead of this season’s Heineken Cup, which was launched at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium today.
Derek McGrath, chief executive of European Rugby Cup Limited, said talks had been held with the world governing body, the International Rugby Board (IRB), over the summer about on and off-field foul play in an effort to protect the integrity of the competition.
Those talks referred to both the Heineken Cup and the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup, and McGrath said: “Although structures are very important for ERC and the tournament, we have, during the summer period, contributed to the discussions to IRB regulation 17 which governs discipline.
“We have the benefit of being able to review our structures on an annual basis and we are focused on protecting the integrity of the tournaments and, through that, ensuring consistency of standards, fairness and transparency of our approach.”
McGrath insists that the move is not a response to the ’Bloodgate’ scandal which rocked rugby union last year and threatened to tarnish the game’s image.
The notorious incident saw Harlequins wing Tom Williams bite on a blood capsule to fake an injury during his team’s 2009 Heineken Cup quarter-final against Irish province Leinster.
The fall-out from that incident saw Quins director of rugby Dean Richards handed a three-year suspension, Williams received a 12-month ban that was eventually reduced to four and the club were fined £258,000 (€304,000)
Subsequently this month, the then-Quins physiotherapist Steph Brennan was struck off by the British Health Professions Council for his part in the affair.
However, McGrath insisted: “You can refer to specific cases but we have had a number of serious cases over the years.
“This is not a comment on a specific case but a comment that, as the game grows, what is important to us is defending the integrity of the tournaments and all that is involved in it.
“It is the spine of the product we generate. We have had high-profile examples in recent times where serious cases have been brought and serious decisions have come down.
“Other sports are encountering disciplinary issues on and off the pitch so we need to remind ourselves that we need to learn from other sports and recognise that, if you don’t protect this, then your sport and your reputation will be damaged.”
The Heineken Cup kicks-off in just under two weeks with defending champions Toulouse seemingly having a relatively comfortable path through to the quarter-finals of the competition with their group containing London Wasps plus Magners League sides Glasgow and Newport Gwent Dragons.
Aviva Premiership champions Leicester, twice winners of the Cup, have former finalists Perpignan along with two in-form sides in Italians Benetton Treviso and Welsh region the Scarlets in their pool.
But there are two pools in particular where some European heavyweights could face early elimination.
Pool Three contains London Irish, Munster, Ospreys and Jonny Wilkinson’s big-spending French team Toulon, while Saracens are in with French teams Clermont Auvergne and Racing Metro plus 2009 champions Leinster.
All the head coaches and captains of the participating clubs from England, Wales and Scotland were at the launch.
McGrath looked forward to this year’s tournament, which will see the final held at the Millennium Stadium in May, saying: “We have seen so much drama and tight games that go right the way down to the wire in recent years and, along the way, we will see fantastic entertainment.”