The Italy No 8, Sergio Parisse, also received eight weeks last month for making contact with the eye or eye area of an opponent during the defeat to New Zealand and, while it is an offence that rightly attracts condemnation for its cowardly nature and the potential damage it could cause, it is rare for a culprit to receive a ban of more than six months.
Twelve months for winking, which is effectively why Williams was banned, is not just draconian but disproportionate. Stick your finger into an opponent’s eye and you can enjoy a short lay-off; put two fingers up to those who run the game, which is what Williams, and his club did, and you are out of work for a year. Percy Montgomery only received six months in 2003 for shoving a touch judge to the ground after a row while playing for Newport at Swansea.
Harlequins are waiting for the written judgment of the three-man disciplinary panel before deciding whether to appeal against Williams’s ban and the £215,000 fine, half of which was suspended for two years, levied on the club. What will be of particular interest will be why Williams was singled out, as if he acted alone.
Dean Richards, the Quins director of rugby, had a misconduct charge levelled against him thrown out, as did the club’s physiotherapist and doctor. So if Williams had a fake blood capsule, which he burst in his mouth five minutes from the end of the game so that Nick Evans, the goal-kicker, could return for the final five minutes with Harlequins trailing by a point, where did he get it from and what were his instructions?
Evans had gone off injured after 47 minutes. His replacement, Chris Malone, limped off soon after coming on, replaced by Williams. Under the regulations, when a player is replaced, a club has to say whether it is a tactical or enforced move. When the Leinster outside-half Felipe Contepomi left the Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster on a stretcher, the fourth official was told it was a tactical replacement, leaving scope for the Argentinian to come back on.
Not that he was in any state to do so, but if a team runs out of replacements, it can avoid going down to 14 men, other than in the case of front-row replacements, if a player suffers a blood injury. In that case, someone who has been replaced for tactical reasons can come back on. Which is where Williams came in.
Harlequins clearly played a fast one with the rules and deserved to be punished, but by failing to get to the bottom of what happened and singling out Williams, the panel is effectively daring Quins to appeal and confess to exactly what went on. To get Williams’s ban reduced, the Premiership club will have to do more than complain about its severity.
An obvious punishment would have been to throw Harlequins out of the 2009-10 Heineken Cup. Even if Evans was hardly in a fit state to make a difference, they cheated and were rumbled. Had Williams been an ineligible player who had been on the field for just a few seconds without touching the ball, they would be looking forward to the European Challenge Cup in October.
Had Williams sought to win a potentially match-winning penalty by pretending to be the victim of foul play, nothing would have been done. Simulation is rife in football, but even though some actions clearly bring the game into disrepute, the authorities stay mute. England’s cricketers bought time in Cardiff earlier this month by bringing the physiotherapist and 12th man on to the field as they battled for a draw in Cardiff and willed the clock to reach 6.40pm as the umpires stood by helplessly.
Cheating, or gamesmanship, takes many forms. It is not a new phenomenon: in 1978, the New Zealand second rows Andy Haden and Frank Oliver spent the night before the international against Wales in Cardiff working out ways of winning a penalty if they were trailing by a point or two with a few minutes to go. They came up with the idea of diving out of a line-out as if barged and found themselves putting it into practice for a 13–12 win.
There are countless examples in all major sports. Quins sought to gain an advantage, just as Leicester did in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Cardiff Blues when the game was ticking down to a kicking contest and they wanted to get their goal-kicker, Julien Dupuy, back on the field. The rules governing replacements need to be tightened up.
A player leaving the field on a stretcher in obvious pain is hardly a tactical substitution and teams should not be allowed to bill it as such. Once a team has used up its replacements, that should be it, other than the front row. The prospect of finishing with 14 men would make coaches think before making ritual substitutions in the final 10 minutes of matches.
Quins took advantage of a messy regulation and Williams’s wink landed them in trouble. The disciplinary committee may not have been able to get to the bottom of who was behind the ruse, but it would be stretching credibility to believe that the player acted alone. The punishment should have been collective, but to save Williams, Quins will need to explain the chain of events. Denial will not be enough but would such an example have been made of a more high-profile player?