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EPCR statements: Bristol docked match points, get suspended fine

By Liam Heagney
Bristol DoR Pat Lam (Photo by Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images)

Pat Lam’s Bristol have tumbled down the prospective European Challenge Cup round of 16 seedings after the Gallagher Premiership club was deducted five match points and fined a suspended €10,000 by EPCR for fielding an ineligible player. Ex-Wasps forward Elliot Stooke, who joined Montpellier a fortnight ago, had been signed by the Bears on a short-term injury cover after being made redundant by the collapse of Wasps in October.

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Stooke’s short stay at the club has now had a disciplinary hearing sequel that has resulted in Bristol dropping to fifth in the Pool A standings ahead of this weekend’s final round group game versus Perpignan before the round of 16 draw is confirmed.

An EPCR statement read: “Bristol 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 one and round two fixtures against Perpignan and Zebre Parma respectively.

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“Bristol 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.

“An independent disciplinary committee comprising Roger Morris (Wales, chair), Kathrine Mackie (Scotland) and David Martin (Ireland) heard submissions from Bristol chief executive Gavin Marshall, from chief operating officer Tom Tainton, and from director of rugby Pat Lam, who accepted that the club had committed a breach of EPCR’s tournament rules, as well as from EPCR disciplinary officer Liam McTiernan.

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“The committee heard that Stooke, who had been previously made redundant by Wasps, was properly registered to play for Bristol 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.

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“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 that he wished to activate an early release clause in his contract and was taking up an offer to join Montpellier Herault Rugby.

“However, by permitting Stooke to sign for Montpellier before the three-month period had elapsed, Bristo unwittingly breached the additional player undertaking and Stooke, therefore, became retrospectively ineligible for the round one and round two matches against USAP and Zebre Parma.

“The committee heard that as all relevant members of Bristol 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.

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“While accepting that Bristol 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 three 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 are found to have committed a further breach of EPCR’s tournament rules during that period.”

A follow-up EPCR statement added: “Further to the findings of the independent disciplinary committee in relation to this case, EPCR can confirm that it will accept the decision of the committee and the sanctions imposed, and will not be appealing.”

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