The East Terrace
Wheeler reeling from 16th man controversy
January 29, 2010
Leicester chief executive Peter Wheeler has struggled to come to terms with the manner of the Tigers' euro exit © Getty Images
The repercussions of the now infamous 'sixteenth man' incident in the Ospreys v Leicester European Cup match continue to reverberate around the rugby community despite the ERC having handed both a fine and ban to the Welsh side.
Leicester chief executive Peter Wheeler in particular is reeling from the shock realisation that, 'there exists in our fair and gentlemanly game of rugby union people who may, intentionally or not, bend, break or abuse the fine laws of our game'. Wheeler's trauma relates to a fifty second period during the Ospreys' 17-12 win against the Tigers when Wales and Ospreys' fullback Lee Byrne returned to the field of play after he had been temporarily replaced as a blood sub without obeying correct protocol.
Amongst much confusion it turned out that the Ospreys had sixteen players on the field whilst defending a powerful Leicester attack. To compound matters further, referee Alan Lewis, after berating the Ospreys' management, failed to award a penalty to the Tigers. This added to the visiting side's indignity after the match. Former England international Wheeler, along with Tigers chairman Peter Tom, immediately launched a legal campaign to force the ERC to investigate the whole affair.
As a result of Leicester's efforts the Ospreys were fined 25,000 Euros and Byrne has been suspended for two weeks, including Wales' trip to Twickenham. The match result, however, stands.
"I've barely gotten a wink of sleep since it happened," said Wheeler in an exclusive interview with The East Terrace. "I cannot believe that anyone would ever want to risk tarnishing our great sport's name by bringing it into disrepute. I was speaking to former Leicester flanker Neil Back about this whole Ospreys' affair. Neil has done everything there is to be done in this game and is a club stalwart who played a major hand in winning several European Cups for this club. I always turn to him when I have major rugby issues to discuss. We were both shocked at the deceit of the Ospreys and it's a shame to think that such a wonderful tournament such as the Heineken Cup has been dirtied like this."
Wheeler has been unrelenting in his pursuit for justice in the last week and was supportive of Leicester's decision to hire a specialist sports firm who deal in sport litigation to try and force the ERC's hand. As well as speaking with Back, Wheeler also turned to former Leicester and England captain Martin Johnson to see if perhaps he had any words to help him make sense of the injustice.
"Martin was another great servant of Leicester and a man who only ever played it straight and narrow on the field. I was certain he would be able to offer me some comfort to help me see past this awful tragedy and perhaps help me get some closure on the issue. However, to be honest he seemed a little coy with me. He mentioned that he may, once or twice in his career, perhaps have possibly bent a law or two. But I can't recall that and I think he may just have been trying to convince himself, in his own way, that rugby was still a pure and noble sport. But I don't believe a former captain of England and Leicester would ever have got involved in any skulduggery."
As well as having trouble sleeping, Wheeler has resorted to taking long walks alone and has revealed that he has turned to music and literature to try and make sense of the past week's events. "I've been listening to The Cure's Disintegration album a lot. I haven't heard that for fifteen years. But I find the melancholy feel of the album somehow makes me feel more at peace, more at one with myself. I especially connect with the bit when Robert Smith sings about how he'll 'never feel whole again'. I've also been listening to The Lamentations of Jeremiah by the Oxford Camerata choir. It all helps. When I've had a bit of that I take the time to read some Albert Camus. In doing so I was assailed by memories of a life that wasn't mine anymore, but one in which I'd found the simplest and most lasting joys. It helps in its own funny way. I don't know why."
Wheeler hopes that in time he may be able to return to rugby's frontline and get at least some of the enjoyment and pleasure he used to get from the sport in what he terms as 'more innocent days'.
The interview was then cut short as he had to make a call to an old employee of his, Dean Richards, whom he wished to also consult about the whole torrid affair.
James Stafford is editor of The East Terrace (www.theeastterrace.com) - an offside view of life in the rugby world