Bristol Bears deducted five match points and fined €10,000

Bristol Bears have been deducted five match points and handed a suspended fine of €10,000 following an independent Disciplinary Hearing arising from the club’s EPCR Challenge Cup, Round 1 and Round 2 fixtures against USAP and Zebre Parma respectively.

Bristol Bears were charged with misconduct by EPCR as the club was believed to have breached the 2022/23 Tournament Rules by selecting an ineligible player, Elliott Stooke, as a replacement in their match day squads for both fixtures in Pool A.

An independent Disciplinary Committee comprising Roger Morris (Wales), Chair, Kathrine Mackie (Scotland) and David Martin (Ireland) heard submissions from the Bristol Bears Chief Executive, Gavin Marshall, Chief Operating Officer, Tom Tainton, and Director of Rugby Pat Lam, who accepted that the club had committed a breach of EPCR’s Tournament Rules, and from the EPCR Disciplinary Officer, Liam McTiernan.

The committee heard that Stooke, who had been previously made redundant by Wasps, was properly registered to play for Bristol Bears as an Additional Player in the EPCR Challenge Cup, and that under EPCR’s rules, Additional Players must be contracted to the club for a minimum period of three months.

In addition, the committee heard that clubs must also sign an Additional Player Undertaking to ensure that the three-month contract remains in full force and effect for the entire three-month period, and to ensure that players do not enter into a contract or arrangement with any other club that would prevent them from playing for the club with which they have been registered.

The committee was told that following his participation in the matches against USAP and Zebre Parma, Stooke informed Bristol Bears that he wished to activate an early release clause in his contract and was taking up an offer to join Montpellier Hérault Rugby.

However, by permitting Stooke to sign for Montpellier Hérault Rugby before the three-month period had elapsed, Bristol Bears unwittingly breached the Additional Player Undertaking, and Stooke therefore became retrospectively ineligible for the Round 1 and Round 2 matches against USAP and Zebre Parma.

The committee heard that as all relevant members of Bristol Bears’ staff were not aware that Stooke had an early release clause in his contract, the member of staff responsible had made an honest clerical mistake when registering him as an Additional Player. They apologised for the error and confirmed that a review of the club’s work practices in this area would be carried out.

While accepting that Bristol Bears had committed a genuine error, and had not sought to gain an unfair advantage in any way, the committee determined that with the need to uphold the integrity of the EPCR Challenge Cup as paramount, the club was guilty of misconduct due to a breach of EPCR’s Tournament Rules and it was decided to deduct five match points from their overall total after Round 3 of the EPCR Challenge Cup, and to impose a fine of €10,000.

The fine is suspended until the end of the 2023/24 season and will only become payable if Bristol Bears are found to have committed a further breach of EPCR’s Tournament Rules during that period.

Both EPCR and Bristol Bears have the right to appeal the decisions.

Notes to Editors

By participating in the Tournament, each Club agrees to adhere to the Participation Agreement. Each Club is under an obligation to ensure all players and other staff are aware of the Tournament Rules and Disciplinary Rules and agree to be bound by them. By participating in the Tournament, players and staff are likewise deemed to be in acceptance of the Tournament Rules and Disciplinary Rules and agree to be bound by them. Notwithstanding the personal responsibility of each person for their own conduct, Clubs are also responsible and accountable for their own conduct and for the conduct of players and staff in connection with the Tournament.

Upon learning of any possible contravention of the EPCR Tournament Rules and/or Disciplinary Rules by a Club, the EPCR Disciplinary Officer may launch an investigation. If the investigation concludes that a Club may have committed one or more breaches of the Tournament Rules, the Disciplinary Officer can make a Misconduct complaint to the Chairman of the independent Judicial Panel, who will appoint an independent Disciplinary Committee to hear the complaint. Representations are ordinarily made to the Disciplinary Committee by both EPCR and the Club.

The decision as to whether there has been Misconduct is taken by the independent Disciplinary Committee, which then imposes an appropriate sanction if it finds the allegation proven.

In this case, EPCR initiated the disciplinary process in response to a breach of the Tournament Rules and brought a Misconduct complaint against Bristol Bears. The independent Disciplinary Committee considered the case, upheld the Misconduct complaint and applied sanctions consistent with previous decisions in similar cases.