“What’s the dirtiest sport around?” This was the question that was put to the CEO of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) recently. Her answer? Not cycling, not athletics, but rugby. Yes, rugby union is the sport considered most at risk of doping in UKAD’s eyes, and it’s not hard to see why. Of the 47 people on their banned list, 16 played rugby union. Throw in rugby league, and a staggering 81% of all banned athletes were rugby players in some shape or form.
And for all the authorities try to duck and dive around such a thorny issue, there is a growing array of evidence which indicates rugby has a significant doping problem. Yet in comparison with other sports, rugby gets a remarkably easy ride; it is, after all, the gentleman’s sport and the media seem intent on keeping it that way. The vitriol and criticism are largely reserved for sports like cycling and athletics. But while the doping problem in both of those sports has markedly improved over the past decade, there has been a steep rise in performance-enhancing drugs in rugby in the same period. Part of the reason has to do with the rapidly changing body shape of players since the dawn of the professional era. In fact, players at this year’s World Cup will be, on average, 2.5 stone heavier than the edition held twenty years previously.
The extent of the doping problem is, in all probability, much greater than is reported. Indeed, one former international coach has cut his ties with the sport given his disillusionment with the “institutionalised doping” which he experienced in his years in England. Brian O’Driscoll’s comments in recent months about the regular use of painkillers in teams he has played for came as a surprise to many, but come to think of it, we shouldn’t be surprised at all. How else do you explain the modern day player taking hit after hit, making tackle after tackle against fellow unnaturally overweight competitors and being able to line up the very next week to do it all again? There is something extremely uncanny about this seemingly inhumane indestructibility of the modern player. Subjecting the body to such repeated stress is bound to have consequences- acute pain being the most obvious outcome. The regular numbing of this pain via painkillers must, therefore, be highly likely to be widespread as O’Driscoll suggests, if not common practice.
The former Ireland captain’s comments smack of a sport in crisis that is unwilling to face up to this reality. “I’d have been part of teams where on the way to a game, a doctor would have walked down the bus on the way to the game and enquired as to who wanted what in advance of it. For me, for the last couple of seasons anyway, part of my match prep would have been a Difene and a couple of Co-codamol – again, just a painkiller if I was carrying something. It almost became like a habit where it gave me a fighting chance if I wasn’t feeling 100pc that it might level it up. And that is the reality of it and I wouldn’t have been the only one doing it.” Worryingly, both drugs mentioned by O’Driscoll are not just mild painkillers, they are stronger than that and are designed to quell quite significant pain. Surely then, a sport has a serious problem if its athletes need to take potent drugs just to get through a game.
The reality is that any time O’Driscoll or any of his teammates used such drugs, they were not in any way fit to play a rugby match. Since the dawn of time, pain has served an extremely useful purpose; it emits a strong signal to the brain that the body is in distress and action needs to be taken. Here, O’Driscoll’s body would have been screaming at him that it could not take any more pain. To suppress this pain is unnatural and must be considered to be nothing other than performance-enhancing. Surely, a drug which prepares one’s body to accept pain that it cannot otherwise take has to be deemed to be performance enhancing, and therefore, must be classified alongside the regularly vilified EPO, corticosteroids, and testosterone. Lance Armstrong and Justin Gatlin took substances to enhance their individual performance and were rightly castigated; why then in rugby is it acceptable to numb pain which would otherwise prevent the player from competing? There should be much more of a fuss about insights offered by former professionals like O’Driscoll, for in this instance it appears as though O’Driscoll is piercing the veil on a shockingly prolific supplement taking culture in one of Ireland’s most popular sports.
Of further concern is the spread of doping into the almost semi-professional setup that is schools rugby. In 2018, six South African schoolboy players tested positive for PEDs, and a total of twelve positive tests had been returned in the preceding three years. Speaking about the ban of his 19-year-old son, former Lions outhalf, Craig Chalmers summed up the growing pressure to “bulk up” that is now widespread at grassroots level: “There is a lot of pressure on young guys. Sam was desperate to put on weight because they said he was not big enough. The message was that if you are not big enough or strong enough then you don’t get picked.”
Yet again, the approach in Ireland is to bury our head in the sand, rather than face up to the unpalatable reality. The evidence of drug-taking is plain for all to see, mostly in the vastly different body shape of schoolboys players in the last ten years. Former Ireland outhalf Tony Ward concedes that there must be “sinister alternatives at work” in trying to explain the freakish body sizes of some underage players. Indeed, how else could you possibly explain such a stark transformation in body shape but the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs?
The approach of authorities in Ireland until now has been to put their fingers in their ears until the noise becomes too loud. It’s only going to become louder. It’s now time to take action.
By Neil Stokes – Sports Writer