Philip Blake, the former Leicester Tigers coach, was handed a six month ban from rugby union following a decision by the RFU disciplinary panel which found him guilty of breaching anti-corruption and betting regulations. It is widely considered to be the first case of its kind in rugby union and as such deserves to be more closely analysed in an effort to understand the reasoning behind the disciplinary panel’s decision to ban Philip Blake.
The actions of Philip Blake (the ‘defendant’) and the nature of his actions were crucial in determining the severity of the breach. The defendant did not dispute the facts of the case and admitted the breach of the RFU’s regulations ahead of the hearing.
The defendant placed a total of eight bets across two games, both involving Leicester Tigers who he worked for as a coach. The games in question were Toulon v Leicester Tigers (hereon ‘game 1’) on 13th December 2014 and Newcastle Falcons v Leicester Tigers (hereon ‘game 2’) on 8th March 2015. The defendant placed 4 bets on game 1 which amounted to £600 in total (a detailed breakdown of the defendants stakes and subsequent winnings are outlined in the judgement). Importantly these bets were not on Leicester Tigers to win outright but rather the conditions were that Leicester Tigers could either win the game OR lose by no more than 19 points. Leicester Tigers lost the game 23-8 (a loss margin of 15) therefore triggering a payout of £969.39 in winnings across the 4 bets for the defendant. The defendant placed another 4 bets on a different date on game 2. These bets were placed on Leicester Tigers simply beating Newcastle Falcons and amounted to a total of £600. Leicester Tigers subsequently beat Newcastle Falcons and therefore this triggered a payout of £900 in winnings. The disciplinary panel judgement states that in total his winnings meant he profited by £669.
The defendant noted in the judgement that his reasons for betting on game 1 in particular was because he felt the odds were in his eyes “ridiculous”. He stated that Leicester Tigers had beaten Toulon the weekend before but more importantly he highlighted that another contributing factor to his betting was that he knew how Leicester Tigers had been preparing for the upcoming game against Toulon. This is a crucial element to what influenced the panel’s decision and one which will be returned to in due course. Additionally the defendant claimed to be unaware of the specifics of these regulations however, as will be seen, this is not a suitable defence.
The two charges resulted in the defendant being found to have breached Regulation 17.3.1 on ‘Prohibited Wagering’. The defendant was found to have breached both subsection a.) and c.) of Reg. 17.3.1.
a.) No Connected Person shall, directly or indirectly, Wager and/or Attempt to Wager on the outcome or any aspect of any Connected Event and/or receive and/or Attempt to receive part or all of the proceeds of any such Wager and/or any other Benefit in relation to a Wager.
c.) No Contract Player or Contract Player Support Personnel shall, directly or indirectly, Wager and/or Attempt to Wager on the outcome and/or any aspect of any Event and/or receive and/or Attempt to receive part or all of the proceeds of any such Wager and/or any other Benefit in relation to a Wager.
The disciplinary panel had to identify whether the defendant was a “connected person”, a “contractual player support personnel” and whether the games in question were “connected events”.
Regulation 17.2 helpfully contains a list of definitions for the above.
Connected person – Any International Player, Contract Player, International Match Official, Contract Player Support Personnel, any coach, trainer, selector, health professional, analyst, team official, administrator, owner, director and/or any other person involved with and/or engaged in relation to the Game by a Union or its National Representative Team and shall include any Union/Association/IRB panel of Match Officials at International Match and/or Contract Player level, Disciplinary Personnel, any Agent and/or representative of an International Player, Contract Player or Contract Player Support Personnel and/or family member and/or associate of any of the foregoing (to the extent that such family member/associate falls under the jurisdiction of a Union, Rugby Body and/or the Board) and/or any other individual or entity involved in the organisation, administration and/or promotion of the Game at International Match and/or Contract Player level.
Contract Player Support Personnel – A Connected Person who is involved with and/or engaged by a Contract Player, a Club, Rugby Body, team and/or Event which includes Contract Players and shall include the teammates and opponents of Contract Players, the Match Officials and Disciplinary Personnel appointed to an Event which includes Contract Players, the support personnel of such Contract Players and Match Officials and the directors, officers and personnel of Unions, Clubs and Rugby Bodies which engage Contract Players (and including without limitation the owners of Clubs and Rugby Bodies, save where the owner is a Union).
The defendant was found to satisfy both of these definitions through the nature of his employment; a coach at Leicester Tigers.
Connected Event – An Event which a Connected Person and/or the National Representative Team and/or Union/Association/IRB Match Official panel (as applicable) is involved with, connected to or engaged with. For the avoidance of doubt where the Event is, for example, an International Match forming part of an International Tournament and/or Series of International Matches, every other International Match in that International Tournament and/or Series of International Matches shall also be a Connected Event.
The games in question were both found to satisfy this definition as they both involved the defendant’s team Leicester Tigers. There was no question that the defendant engaged in the event in some way.
Intricacies of the case
The defendant stated that a factor to his decision to place bets on game 1 was because he knew how well Leicester Tigers had been preparing for the game in training. Clearly this sort of information is not readily available to members of the public or even the bookmakers. The defendant, through the nature of his employment, had a unique perspective and knowledge of the team to come to a decision that the odds were, in the defendant’s words, ridiculous. While the defendant was acting for purely his own gain and not for the benefit of anyone else it is still unfair to take advantage of the bookmaker’s odds and as such undermines the integrity of his own reputation, the sport and the gambling industry. It is ultimately the bookmakers who lose out in this scenario since they are the party who have to pay out winnings to a party who used information that was unavailable to others.
In response to the RFU’s letter to the defendant informing that he would be facing these charges, the defendant replied outlining that he was unaware of the specifics of the regulations in question. The disciplinary panel were quick to outline that Regulation 17.3 states the following:
Accordingly, it is not necessary that intent, fault, negligence and/or knowing commission of an Anti-Corruption Breach on the Connected Person’s part be demonstrated in order to establish that an Anti-Corruption Breach has been committed.
A defendant in these circumstances does not have to be knowingly committing the crime, the act itself is enough to find a breach. The defendant’s intentions are also not considered by the disciplinary panel. What may be seen as a harmless bet in the eyes of the defendant is not a view shared by the RFU or any disciplinary panel.
The RFU sanctions on such breaches can be found at Regulation 17.6.2 however the range of sanctions is wide and therefore leaves a lot to be interpreted. For reference, the minimum sanction is a reprimand and/or warning while the maximum is life suspension. This clearly indicates the varying nature of anti-corruption breaches and that there is certainly no one-size fits all model. The World Rugby Regulation 6 provides an idea on a number of mitigating and aggravating factors that need to be considered in these cases.
A complete list of aggravating factors is laid out in the judgement so instead this author will merely discuss the arguably more important aggravating factors. Perhaps the most important is that the defendant was placing bets on his own team but interestingly they weren’t necessarily just on his team winning. The nature of the bets on game 1, as detailed earlier, meant that Leicester Tigers could still lose and the defendant would have won the bet. This therefore brings into question the integrity of the defendant since he was engaged as a coach at Leicester Tigers and the game as a whole. Had the defendant placed bets only on his team simply winning then there is every possibility that his punishment would have been lower than it was. Two other aggravating factors that should be noted were the amount of money in question, which was deemed to be “not insignificant”, and the fact multiple bets were placed over two different occasions, indicating this perhaps was not merely an isolated lapse in judgement.
As is the case with law, the sanction is often the result of a delicate balancing act. There were a number of mitigating factors present in this case. The panel noted that the breaches did not severely impact the commercial impact of the games in question and the defendant did not have a direct influence in the outcome of the match. It can be best assumed therefore that had these offences been committed by a player who featured for one of the sides involved in the game then the punishment would have been much more severe.
A six month ban, a fine of £669 to cover the profit made by the defendant and costs of £500 were imposed. The defendant subsequently appealed the decision however the appeal board found no evidence that the disciplinary panel incorrectly applied the sanctioning process and the punishment handed down was not so excessive as to be deemed unreasonable.