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Anatomy of a Scandal

A unique perspective on the personal and professional resilience required to navigate a scandal that changed the sport of rugby forever.

Tom Williams, the player at the epicenter of ‘Bloodgate’ opens up about ‘win at all costs’ culture, cognitive diversity, mental health, leadership and how an organization recovers in the wake of a defining event. Interviewed by Richard Neish, Managing Director of Kin + Carta Connect.

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Tom Williams, Founder and Performance Coach at TMW Development
Richard Neish, MD at Kin + Carta Connect



April 2009

Tom Williams:
It was a really interesting set of circumstances. When I was brought up as a child, my dream was to play professional sport at the highest level. To represent England at the home of rugby, Twickenham. And here we are at the highest level I've played up to that point, the quarter final of the Heineken Cup, the European competition. And I'm tasked with going on the pitch when the scores were six, five, with the charge of trying to win the game. All of a sudden Steph Brennan comes on, hands me the blood capsule. And from there, I think that it's my role in order to help Harlequins win the game, to go through with a blood substitution. So at no time did I think anything other than this is what's required in order to win the game.


The Harlequins' culture

How would you describe the culture of Harlequins at that moment in time? 

We had been relegated four years previously. From the premiership to the second tier of rugby. Now as Harlequins, a world renowned rugby club to be relegated, was a massive thing. And in came Dean Richards, our Director of Rugby, and with him came a level of reputation that we hadn't previously seen. He'd been very, very successful initially as a player, and then as a coach with Leicester Tigers. And he played also for British Lions and England. He was a rambunctious number eight, a hard nosed, grunty number eight who'd really grabbed a game by its horns and crack on. So was the culture at the time different to previously, absolutely, his first training session when he came in. He brought an old banger of a car for example, and this car we were charged with going around the field five times pushing this car around. We aren't the most intelligent bunch of rugby players, we put our hands through the back windscreen. We went round and round and round that day. People with scratches all up their arms and so on and so forth. Under no circumstances were we allowed to quit. Under no circumstances were we allowed to take second best. That was the culture of a club at a time, win at all costs. We weren't consulted about it. We were just told to do it and we did it.


Command and control

So it was a command and control, you're working for your leader. You have trust, In fact let's go there. Did you have trust for 

Absolute trust, and that came with his reputation. So Dean came in with this prestigious career behind him. Four premierships in two European cups as a coach. And as a player, he was extraordinarily successful as well. So there was an implied level of trust there, which meant that any decisions being made, were certainly not decisions by consensus. It was top down decision making. Do this, be successful, win at all costs.

Pressure and responsibility 

I want to go back to that day in April. I wanna get to minutes after the game. You're locked in the physio room with club Dr. Wendy Chapman. The opposition medical staff and match officials are banging on the door, and shouting to get in, You pleaded with Dr. Chapman to make a surgical incision in your mouth, to cut your mouth. So that there will be real blood. Talk us through the pressure and the sense of responsibility that you felt at that moment.

So it was really, let me take you back a couple of seconds from that point. So I went on the field in replacement for Chris Malone. And then I was coming off of the field in order to get that recognised kicker back on the pitch. In order to do so, I was being told to manufacture a blood substitution, something I'd never done before. So my stress levels were already extraordinarily high, especially given it was the highest level I'd ever play at. So we're coming off the field. We're getting shouted at by the opposition. The referee is asking the physiotherapist, is that real blood? I'm starting to panic. We walk down the tunnel, and the opposition players including Irish international Shane Horgan are shouting down the tunnel at me. That's not real blood, that's not real blood. We go into the physio room, and then the changing room, the doors locking behind us and there is banging - of people trying to get in. I am desperate to try and make this injury seem justified. I'm desperate to ratify the authenticity of this injury. And in my desperation, I pleaded with Wendy to cut my lip. It was certainly an extraordinarily stressful time. But I saw no other option, rightly or wrongly, clearly wrongly at that time.

It's a staggering level of pressure, it seems that you were put under. How did Harlequins your employer, the business that you represented, the organisation that you represented. Support you, their player, their colleague, in the days that followed?

Well, certainly there was no level of consensus decision making. It was do this and we will be fine. To put it into words Richard, it was very, very simple. I was told post-game whereas, yes admittedly, there was a slightly strange atmosphere around but nothing too untoward. I was told post-game, don't worry, everything will be fine. And this followed on even in lead up to the first hearing. Where the ERC, the European Rugby Commission, had a disciplinary hearing because they had evidence to suggest that we had manufactured this substitution. The process was., Harlequins were telling me, don't worry, Tom. The worst you'll get is a small fine and we will pay it. Go through with this process of cover up, and you will be fine. And that took us to that first hearing. While at the first hearing, we sat there in front of the panel. Myself, Harlequins Dean Richards, Steph Brennan the physiotherapist, and Wendy Chapman the doctor. Going through over a number of days. Over a couple of days we're going through the events of the day. And I'm Shown this footage of me walking to the back of the field, kneeling down under the post, pulling a blood capsule out of my sock, putting it in my mouth, it falls on the floor. I scramble around on the floor looking for it 'cause I'm colourblind, red, green colour blindness. And this blood capsule was obviously red, back in my mouth and then this stupid blood coming out of my mouth. I was told by Harlequins to say that was my gum shield. Now, the ERC had enhanced the footage, so you could see clearly that it was not a gum shield. And at that point, I realised that my purpose as a rugby player to play for England at the home of rugby in Twickenham in front of 80,000 people, was falling apart around me. I saw that my why as Simon Sinek would say it, was falling apart around me. I felt isolated, dehumanised and completely on my own.

The mental health impact

To that point it strikes me, you've grown up from a young age in a team sport. You've been surrounded by people who win together, loose together. But at this moment, you're not one of 15. Very, very quickly, very suddenly you become one of one. You might not use these words at that time. But looking back at it now, how did that affect your mental health?

You're absolutely right. But I wouldn't have used the terms at the time. I was a 25 year old young rugby player put on this pedestal their entire life to become this rugby player, this international gladiator if you like. It didn't occur to me to ever consider what I was going through, during the period of this first hearing as a mental health issue. I lost a phenomenal amount of weight. And I felt phenomenally ill. And that lingered with me as I saw my world falling apart like I said. so I felt horrendous. If I'd known what I know now, I'd go out and seen someone straight away, not my friends. But as you said Richard, I felt isolated. I felt it was my responsibility to try and get Harlequins through this. As an outcome of that first hearing, I was the one who was found to be the sole person behind the substitution. So it was insinuated that I had gone to the Clapham Junction Joke shop and bought this one pound blood capsule. I was the person who told Dean Richards as I was running onto the field, and then told Steph Brennan, why we were running, that we were doing this blood substitution. And I got a year's ban, and everyone else got nothing. So we were out there on our own. I was out on my own sorry, and I felt completely isolated. I wish I'd had the gumption to go and speak to someone about what I was going through, prior to that first hearing.

Reputation before people

So this is an organisation that has put brand reputation before staff welfare, before an ethical duty of care. It was prepared to sacrifice or even bribe a colleague, that'd be you. In order to maintain a corrupt status quo. I wanna touch on a crisis meeting that happened between the two hearings. There was the initial ERC hearing and later there was an appeal hearing. But in the middle of that there was a crisis meeting. 13 men, all members of the Harlequins Committee, the club QC and Solicitor. Convened in the director's house in clapham. Talk us through what happened that evening.

In the lead up to this crisis meeting, I was issued an ultimatum. So I've been banned for a year. And I was issued an ultimatum by the ERC and their lawyers. And this ultimatum had five questions on it. There was also a deadline. So I was issued this ultimatum on Monday, and the deadline was on Friday. There were five questions in this ultimatum, if I did not answer them, my ban would have been increased to two years. Two years for a decision that I wasn't consulted on. Two years on an outcome that I really plaid the smallest part to. So, these five questions were along the line of, did you act alone? Did Dean Richards know what he was doing in order to manufacture that substitution? Now with only seven substitutes, we had to really get me off the field to get Nick Evans back on the field. It was one of the limitations and curiosities of rugby. And then who else was involved? Was the doctor involved? Was a physiotherapist involved? And did the Harlequin CEO Mark Evans know what was going on. And this culminated at 11 o'clock on a Thursday evening before the Friday deadline, midday deadline on Friday. Where we sat around this house in Clapham for hours on end. By the way, there were the 13 people you mentioned, myself and my girlfriend at the time, Alex. So we were there, sitting in that room, going back and forth, over and over again. Why we shouldn't come forward and tell the truth or answer these questions. Harlequins were saying things along the lines of, if you do this we will be kicked out of Europe. With the obvious financial implications, our reputation will be in tatters. People will lose their jobs not only on the commercial side, but also on the playing side. Your fellow players will lose their jobs, we will not be able to afford them, and they will not want to stay if we're not playing in Europe. You will also impact the future playing opportunities for their country, of your fellow players. Because the England team liked to pick from players playing at the highest level of club rugby and that is the Heineken Cup. So we were going back and forth Richard, back and forth for what it seemed like an eternity, and it got pretty. It was not heated as such, but it was desperate. And Harlequins at one point came out and said to me. Right so, if you take this 2 year ban, we will pay for you to go on sabbatical. We will pay some of your mortgage off. We will guarantee you and your girlfriend future employment after rugby. But if you don't do that, and you come out and tell the truth. Those are the lists of things that could potentially happen. And these were being laid on thick all throughout the week. And so it was being told to the players as well. So again, it just added to my isolation.


The turning point 

Huge, there was a critical and telling intervention that evening. You'd reached an impasse, you'd walked out the door. And this must have been what 11 o'clock that evening, give or take. What happened next?

Yeah so this was, you talk about the wider context of critical moments. Bloodgate was my critical moment. We're currently going through a critical moment at the moment of COVID. And what will be our response and reaction to that. But within that, there're several different aspects, several smaller moments, but nevertheless, incredibly important and indeed critical. So when I went out about that house at 11 o'clock, my girlfriend Alex had stepped out some moments earlier just to get some air 'cause of her frustration. I walked out and she said, Where are you going? I said, What do you mean where am I going? We're getting nowhere, I'm going home, I'm gonna sleep on it. And I'll make my decision tomorrow, whether I come forward and tell the truth or whether I make a counteroffer to Harlequins or whether I come out and tell the truth or whether I just take it on the chin. 

She goes, well we're not finished yet. We haven't got an answer. We're not gonna get the situation again, where we've got these high powered lawyers, business leaders, you know, leaders of industry in this room at the Harlequins chairman's house. We're not gonna get this opportunity again. And I said, Well look, there's no point. We've gone around for three hours. But she decided to go back into that room. She decided to go into that room and ask them two questions. Each and every single one of them. She went round that room of men. And she said, whose fault is it we're in this position? Dean Richards, and is it Tom's fault? The answer being no. The outcome was at six o'clock the next morning, I got a phone call from my clubs owner Charles Jennings, telling me that they had accepted Dean Richards resignation. And they have supported me wholeheartedly. All of a sudden, I become a person again, a human again. From that moment of dehumanization, I was back in the room, and I felt a wave of support from that point.

So two things to take away from that. One, I'm right in saying that Alex is now your wife, mother of three wonderful children.

She didn't give me a choice, I had to do it. Jokes aside, she's the best person I know. Absolutely gorgeous.

The second thing that strikes me about that from a business perspective, is that it took an intervention of a completely separate demographic here, you've got 30 men in suits, in ties, similar upbringing, similar backgrounds. And an environment without cognitive diversity, is only gonna get to one solution. Is only going to see one area or one way of going forward. And it took that. It took a 25 year old woman, who had a different view of life. Who had a different set of perspectives. Who had a different life experience, to alter the effects of that, change the dynamic of that conversation.

Absolutely. So you go into that room and everyone's patting each other back and bigging themselves up, for a decision that they've made. Because they've got one focus and one focus only, and that is the success and reputation and Harlequins. Not how I was feeling as an individual, the impact it was having on a wider scale. What Alex made them realize, that person from outside the group, that different demographic, that different level of cognitive diversity was that they had a bigger picture to consider. They had right and wrong to consider, not what was right and wrong for Harlequins. What was right and wrong for the whole industry, for the whole of rugby, and just in general. And certainly the impact on me was caught up in that moment as well.


Rebuilding after a crisis

So sticking with the club. At this point Harlequins, it feels like it's a broken organisation with a toxic culture. How did the club start to rebuild in the aftermath of Bloodgate?

It's really interesting, because some may argue Richard that it was a successful culture. We had reached the quarterfinals of the Heineken Cup. We had relative success the year before. We'd been promoted the year before that. But actually look what it led to. It led to this catastrophic event where one blood capsule ended up costing the club a million pounds, so one pound to a million pounds. That is the impact it had on an industry, on a club sorry, That loses money on a year to year basis. So it had a massive and catastrophic impact on us. So following Bloodgate, and following Dean Richards resignation, Harlequins recognised that they needed to reintegrate me as an individual. 

Before that happened, they had to rebuild their reputation. They had to maintain relationships with sponsors, fans and regain their trust. And part of that process, was to bring in a new director of rugby. A director of rugby who had, unimpeachable record in the game. So they brought in Conor O'Shea. An Irishman, who comes from a very, very successful family. Who's had a massively different perspective on rugby, having been brought up in the amateur age, played in the professional days. At the early professional days of London Irish before moving on to the British Olympic Association, before moving back to Harlequins. So he had a bigger picture than just it's a game of rugby. He understood but with now we were getting paid, it was a professional entity. People were gambling on it. Things mattered. The sponsors were paying for things. So he understood that, and with that he really built from the ground up our culture again. Where it wasn't a focus on winning at all costs. It was still a winning culture, but we did it via process. Process not outcome, performance not results. Because we knew if we got the process or the performance right, then the outcome would be favourable more often than not, given the players we had. It wasn't an easy process. There were some people who had to get off the bus as he liked to say. But when we got the right people on the bus, three years later, four years later. We have some level of success.


We, in our everyday jobs, we talk a lot with good reason about purpose and about values. Am I right in thinking that the club had a set of values that were effectively for marketing purposes or sponsorship engagement, but the playing group, the frontline workers lived by another.

Tom: So there were two sets of values, but they are intrinsically linked. We had a commitment, loyalty, belief and honesty on the commercial side. Because we needed to really regain that trust of our supporters. We needed to show them some loyalty and show those people that we had made a change. Those organizations who were supporting us, that we were gonna be the bastions of fair play. The flag bearers if you like. And that was the culture at the time that Harlequins bought in, under all under Connor O'Shea. On the flip side, it's still linked to our playing passion, our playing cultures. We knew that we still needed that hard edge that Dean Richards brought in so successfully. We knew that we needed to be physical to a level that we hadn't previously reached. We also knew that we needed to be unpredictable. And we needed to enjoy what we were doing. Because certainly, whilst we were winning at all costs under Dean, not 100% of the sport we're enjoying it. Under Conor O'Shea, you'd find that a higher proportion of people were happy. And you've got results as a result of that. So it started on his first day when he took us away to a business school in Mount Stewart Forest. And we did a culture day. I addressed the team about my role, my decisions. Really clearing the air. And then it went on to our behaviors and what it meant to be a Harlequins rugby player, a world renowned club and what it meant to be part of that club. 


Returning to the workplace

So let's come back to you Tom. There are millions of people today who've been furloughed. They've been removed from their organisations and excluded from that professional, and that social interaction. Much like you were during a ban, you served that ban. Drawing on your own experience when you returned from that ban. What advice would you give to those who have to return to the workplace after an enforced absence?

It certainly wasn't easy. But Harlequins did a great job. Between Conor O'Shea and Dean Richards, they had an interim head coach, a really good guy called John Kingston. And as soon as I returned to training, he said the first thing you're gonna do, when your ban ends, is get you back on the pitch. Now, that's a funny story in itself, 'cause we were away at North Hampton. And I was petrified. We talked about mental health and I was just a statue in the middle of the field, and being a winger I'm supposed to be quick and nimble and fast. I couldn't move 'cause I was paralysed by the fear of making a mistake, by the fact that I was in the spotlight again. And it didn't help that England winger at a time Chris Ashton, broke my nose twice in one game and there was a stream of real blood and I had a massive, massive white piece of paper up my nose trying to stop the blood. That didn't help anything. But it was an amusing aside that I look back on is quite funny. But it really was a tough situation. And it took me a long time to realise that there were certain things I could have done earlier, that would have had more success. And that is to have got back to the basics. If I could get my basics up to a world class level. Now in rugby terms, I'm talking about tackling, communication, passing, offloading whatever it might be. Now in a business context, it might be organisation, it might be communications and whatever specific job description that your role entails. Doing that to a world class level is imperative. Then from there that will allow you to express yourself, to show yourself employers why they employed you, that individual. 'Cause you're gonna bring something else to the party beyond that world class excellence. Those world class basics, you're gonna bring ideas, potential, and create something that hopefully will build into something successful down the line.

Coming back from a crisis

The thought of the fact stripping back to basics, at a time where there are 100 things you could do. Where do we focus on? What do we really get at? That really, really resonates. You talk about success, then do those things you can build to success. Given everything that that club had been through, your teammates have been through. You had been through personally, we fast forward a little bit. 2012, a renewed, rebuilt, reinvigorated Harlequins, Won the Aviva Premiership. And you scored on that day in front of 82,000 people at Twickenham. Now Tom, I've watched these tapes, and I've watched these tapes over and over again. You score, you go over the corner, you go past Ben Youngs current England's scrum half. You score, you stand up, you walk back to the halfway line. I'm looking at that game. Surely, surely this is a moment of redemption. I'm looking for you to kick the ball into the stands, to set a wild celebration. But all I can see is focus.

It wasn't focus, it was a relief that I didn't drop a ball. I look back on it, 'cause it was eight years ago last Saturday and I replayed it. I watched it for the first time actually in eight years. And I look back on it, I thought God, I was sort of full circle, that was redemption. But for me at the time, I didn't feel that. I thought that I was doing my job. And we had a focus at Harlequins where if we made a mistake, or even if we did something good like score a try. Next job focus. And my next job at that point, was to get a drink of water on the halfway line, 'cause it was about 30 degrees in the stadium. Talk about that first game back in 2009, after the ban that I had, and I was paralyzed by fear. For some reason three years later, it was completely opposite. I was free. And I felt that I was doing my job to the best of my ability. And I felt that I was performing up to the peak level. It took a long time to get there. But when I think about how the decisions were made, they were no longer top down. There were consensus decisions being made throughout the sport. They were a set of behaviours that lead us to get to that stage. And it culminated the following year, from a personal perspective, whilst winning the Premiership was brilliant and a huge accolade. It's great to have a medal, wherever the kids have hidden it. The following year, when I won player of the year, for me was the absolute pinnacle. The recognition by my peers that I've been reintegrated. That I've made a contribution above all others within that sport, all other international players. 'Cause I had to change my purpose Richard. My purpose was no longer to play for England or the British Lion. I recognised that that situation - Bloodgate had made that ship sail. I also recognise now looking back on it, that I'm self aware enough to know, I probably wasn't good enough anyway. But for that day, for those two or three years. I peaked and performed at a level that might have got me to that level. I scored at Twickenham the home of rugby, in front of 82,000 people. And I was recognised by my fellow players, my colleagues who potentially at one point didn't agree with me. That I've done the right thing, that I've performed and that felt like true redemption.


The importance of trust

What an amazing recognition, and just that clarity of your next job. We've always got a next job, a next thing we’re going to do. So to conclude, consider the comparisons to where we are today. Our critical moment hasn't been shown by an individual. It's a responsibility of us all. Our actions and behaviours define the cultures of our organisations, and the strength and diversity of those cultures, and the difference between success and failure. There isn't one of our job titles that means a thing, without the trust of our staff and colleagues. The trust is hard earned and must never be betrayed. We choose how we rebuild, we choose like Tom did, to get back to our basics. To ensure that we are world class we sometimes need to strip back to the core of our businesses. Only then do we earn the right to expand, to scale, to grow our recovery, our resilience. 

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