I write this article in response to a piece entitled ‘It’s Time for Rugby to Address It’s Rampant Doping Culture’ published on April 9th earlier this year in the College Tribune. At this point there is much discourse surrounding the presence of doping in sports; but in particular rugby.

There certainly is legitimate cause for speculation around the presence of doping in rugby. Aphiwe Dyantyi (South African winger) tested positive for anabolic steroids and metabolites on July 2nd while six of 122 South African schoolboy tests came back positive for anabolic steroids at the 2018 Craven Week. 

In fact, much of the case made initially in the piece ‘It’s Time for Rugby to Address It’s Rampant Doping Culture’ is difficult to disagree with – particularly the criticism of painkiller culture in rugby. This sort of journalism is positive for any sport; it questions, it challenges.

However, some of what would traditionally be described as ‘development’ of the article’s principle arguments can only be described as bombastic scaremongering. Firstly, to address the numbers of rugby playing athletes banned for doping. The fact that roughly 30 percent of 50 athletes banned for doping in the UK were rugby players does not mean that rugby is ‘dirtier’ than other sports. People seem to automatically assume that more athletes caught and banned for doping must mean mass doping culture. The counter narrative; which unfortunately would never sell as many papers as aggressive accusations of an epidemic, is that the testing procedures in rugby are more regular and stricter than in other disciplines. When dopers are caught does this not make the sport cleaner? This is notwithstanding that rugby players are almost constantly in competitive season. Track and field athletes in particular have a much shorter season; with less frequent testing. 

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Journalists, both amateur and professional seem to have a preconception that athletes being heavier or stronger than in the past is definitive proof of steroid use. To quote Mr. Stokes ‘In fact, players at this year’s World Cup will be, on average, 2.5 stone heavier than the edition held twenty years previously.’ This sort of assertion is becoming all too common in the work of journalists who evidently lack sufficient knowledge of sports science or the game itself. Rugby Union is not merely a contact sport; it is a game where contact is the sport – it is the essence and heart of the game. For this reason, players have always wanted to improve their strength and size. In 1999 rugby had only been through one World Cup cycle of professionalism. Furthermore, sports science was almost non-existent compared to what it is today. The developments in sports science; from nutrition to weight training have been so great, particularly over the last two decades that to flippantly disregard the hard work of players and strength and conditioning coaches is beyond flippant. 

Without making too much of this quote; this is an average, taken across all the teams at the world cup – is this an attempt to condemn every player, playing for every team as a drug cheat? Perhaps it is an accusation aimed at only the majority of professionals. In 1999 rugby was only a part time profession; we don’t have to go too far afield to find examples of this when Leinster were still training from the boot of a coach’s car and a prefab and garage in Donnybrook. Of course, players weights have increased; they’re full time professionals with the ability to dedicate large amounts of time to gym work. 

While Mr. Stokes makes a particularly worthwhile point addressing painkiller taking in rugby, branding them as a performance enhancing drug is not only a bridge too far, but also ill-informed. Mr. Stokes addresses Brian O’Driscoll’s use of Difene before games in order to push through pain to play the match. While I agree that this culture is a scourge on the game, it does not amount to illegal performance enhancement. Anyone who has taken Difene in the past will tell you that it comes with a heavy side-effect warning; particularly in relation to drowsiness. I simply don’t see how drowsiness and impaired reaction times could be seen to enhance an elite player’s performance. 

Lastly, I would like to address the assertion made by Mr. Stokes that ‘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.’ Firstly, youngsters now begin lifting weights alongside rugby from the age of thirteen upwards in schools. The body sizes that are seen at schoolboy level are a product of repetitions in the gym and a lot of protein and carbohydrate heavy meals. The ethics behind bulking schoolboy players up in this manner is a discussion for another time. However, to attack en masse schools’ players, and perhaps more accurately the parents of schoolboy players is unacceptable. This hypothesis that a large proportion of schoolboy players in this country are engaging in steroid use, either with or without their parents’ knowledge is outrageous.

The picture of the South African team after a gym session has caught the eye of the media in recent weeks. Nobody can look like that without steroids, seems to be the general consensus from the journalists. What we see is the picture, what we have missed is the thousands of hours and millions of kilograms shifted over a lifetime to leave the athletes in that condition. I am not saying South Africa have a clean reputation, but to brand every player as a drug cheat is wrong. These athletes have passed rigorous tests. Is it jealousy or misunderstanding that leads so many journalists to condemn professional rugby players and their physical appearance? Not that it will make a difference to the mob of angry journalists, but rugby is a game of more than physical size. The All Blacks dwarfed in comparison to the Springboks in terms of size in their recent World Cup clash. I needn’t tell you who came out on top in that affair. Rugby Union needs skills and vision as well as size.


Matthew Dillon – Sport Editor