Wednesday, 24 April 2019

UK Anti-Doping's James Hudson highlights the danger of drug misuse in rugby

UK Anti-Doping's James Hudson spoke exclusively to me about the perils around doping in rugby union. The experienced Premiership lock - now a researcher and sports nutrition expert - spoke to me ahead of the publication of the RFU's eighth annual report into anti-doping. A version of this piece ran in The Rugby Paper before the report was published, and my interview with Hudson was also used within The Independent's coverage of the report.

Rugby runs the risk of players taking performance-enhancing drugs as a “last roll of the dice” unless education around doping is stepped up, UK Anti-Doping’s James Hudson is warning.

Former Newcastle Falcons captain Hudson, who also played for Bath, London Irish and Gloucester, believes the game needs to do more to support young players who are left “vulnerable” after missing out on senior contracts or contract renewals.

Hudson, a member of UK Anti-Doping’s Athlete Commission, does not believe there is a doping problem at the elite level of rugby, but is calling on administrators and coaches to be pro-active in minimising the temptations to cheat.

The RFU’s eighth annual report on its anti-doping programme in England was published on April 23, while World Rugby is due to reveal the outcome of its 2018 testing programme in a matter of weeks.

Hudson says rugby union is the “most culpable” of any UK sport in terms of doping breaches, and says coaches need to be careful about their use of language when talking to players.

According to data collated from UKAD by online medical firm euroClinix, Rugby Union has registered 66 anti-doping rule violations in the UK since 2008 – more than the second and third sports on the list combined (Rugby League and professional boxing). Between September 2008 and April 2018, 34 of the sanctions in Union were for the use of anabolic agents.

“Rugby is unfortunately the most culpable of all sports in terms of anti-doping rule violations in the UK, which isn’t good,” Hudson said. “These figures are representative of the evidence over the last decade.

“The vast majority are in the sub-elite population, where athletes have dropped out of an academy system and dropped down to Championship-level or first division and they have made a poor decision.

“They feel to make it back to the top level it’s the last roll of the dice. That’s where most of these poor decisions come from.

“Younger athletes – 18 to 20 – they don’t quite get that first-team contract they have so desired for years. This can be coupled with the language from coaches – players feel more and more pressured into meeting the physical needs of the game. There is pressure on players to get bigger.

“There is potential vulnerability. They hear: ‘You are not quite big enough or strong enough’. There might be a range of reasons why they have not got a contract, but if players leave academies and think that’s the only reason they haven’t been included that’s when they are reaching for something. That’s a time we need to be really careful about the language we use.

“Players are maybe looking for a quick fix as they don’t have the support they once had. They are vulnerable athletes.”

Hudson believes the Ashley Johnson case is the only example of a doping violation at Premiership level over the past decade. Wasps forward Johnson received a six-month suspension in July after a urine sample contained banned hydrochlorothiazide, which Johnson said was the result of him mistakenly taking his wife’s fat burner dietary supplement.

Hudson, a sports performance nutritionist working at Gloucester and a PhD researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, believes the high wages paid to Premiership players now actually serve as a deterrent to elite players resorting to performance-enhancing drugs.

“At the elite level there is now just too much to lose,” he said. “I just don’t see the logic in risking what is now such a high-rewarding sport financially. The elite players have a lot to lose. I don’t see the incentive there.

“The flip side is that those who have just missed out or dropped a tier or two – the carrot is big and that probably doesn’t help.

“I don’t think there is an issue at the top level where there is testing in abundance, but there is at the sub-elite.”

World Rugby and the RFU are ramping up their education efforts to minimise instances of doping. Later this year, the RFU will launch a Good Nutrition for Performance education programme, while World Rugby this week announced new anti-doping education initiatives, with a focus on nutritional advice, the safe use of supplements, and more engaging online-learning initiatives for players and support staff.

Dr Simon Kemp, the RFU’s director of medical services and chairman of its Anti-Doping Advisory Group, said: “Prevention through education is at the core of the RFU’s anti-doping strategy. Working closely with Premiership Rugby, the Rugby Players’ Association and UK Anti-Doping, we work to reach thousands of players, athletes, coaches, trainers, medical staff and other support personnel each season.

“The community game anti-doping strategy is focused on improving awareness, enhancing education and increasing testing. A key message is that players looking to improve their performance should optimise their hydration, diet, sleep, training and recovery practices and adopt a healthy lifestyle.”

World Rugby's Anti-Doping Advisory Committee chairman John O’Driscoll said: "As a sport, we must always be alive to the threat of doping and we remain committed to protecting clean athletes and maintaining a level playing field through intelligent testing and innovative values-based education."

Hudson said there was a greater willingness from World Rugby to involve players in decisions around anti-doping policy.

“They are really actively trying to listen to the view of players, which is a big step forward,” he said. “The athletes’ voice is vital.”

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

New book out in autumn: Sports Journalism

I have a new book, Sports Journalism: The State of Play, out in the autumn of 2019. After a few dramatic moments in extra time, the manuscript is now with the publisher, Routledge, and it's due to be on shelves in September.

The book is an analysis of contemporary sports journalism with a focus on how the digital revolution has affected the sports media landscape. There is a bit of history, a bit of ethics, a bit of sociology, a bit of crystal ball-gazing... a bit of everything that's intended to get both current and trainee sports journalists thinking about what it means to be a sports journalist today, and where we should be focusing our time and energy. While there are plenty of reflections, it is anchored in practical situations and experiences.

The book, co-authored with Daragh Minogue from St Mary's University, is part of Routledge's Media Skills series, which is edited by Prof. Richard Keeble.

A wide range of journalists agreed to be interviewed by me for the book, including Anna Kessel, Sam Peters, David Emery, James Pearce, John Simpson, Laura Winter, Michelle Owen and Steve Marshall. Many thanks to them and everyone else who contributed. I will update when the precise publication date is confirmed.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Redefining the role of the rugby kit man

I remember the days when, if you wanted your clothes to show off your rugby-loving credentials, you had to turn up the collar on your old-school rugby shirt when you walked into the uni bar.

Now things are a bit different thanks to the growing availability of what might be termed 'rugby leisurewear'. Outfitters such as In the Scrum are producing versatile lines, although whether I succeed in carrying them off is another matter.

In the Scrum's range incorporates clothing for those of a French persuasion as well as supporters of the home nations, so it's worth checking out if you want to sport something a touch different this Six Nations.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Eddie Jones should take a closer look at Billy Twelvetrees, says Johan Ackermann

Danny Cipriani may be stealing the headlines at Gloucester, but it is the main outside him who is the “unsung hero” of the Cherry and Whites’ strong start to the campaign.

Billy Twelvetrees has been Gloucester’s lynch-pin in the Premiership so far, according to boss Johan Ackermann.

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Now Gloucester head coach Ackermann is urging England supremo Eddie Jones to take a closer look at Twelvetrees ahead of the World Cup.

Twelvetrees has been slotting his kicks so far this term, as well as being the level-headed foil to Cipriani’s audacious plays.

Twelvetrees, who picked up the last of his 22 caps in 2015, impressed again on Friday in Gloucester’s five-try to win over Bristol, with Jones looking on.


“Billy is the side’s unsung hero at the moment,” Ackermann told me. “He is consistently one of our senior guys who works extremely hard during the week.

“He is very calm, shows good leadership and is extremely fit. His work-rate is tremendous on the field and I don’t always think he gets that recognition.

“He organises a lot in defence and works a lot off the ball. He is really working well with Danny on his inside and he’s really doing well for us at this stage.

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“He’s always so professional. He’s always one of the guys who really looks after himself and always one of the last to walk out of the club. It’s very good to have him in our system.”

England boss Jones opted for Owen Farrell, Henry Slade, Piers Francis and Alex Lozowski as his potential inside centres in his August pre-season camp, but Ackermann ardently believes Twelvetrees is worth another look.


Twelvetrees, 29, is filling in at the first-receiver role at times for Gloucester, with Cipriani on occasion being used as a decoy.

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“It’s a difficult one. Obviously, I’ll always lean towards the guys that I coach and I do believe Billy’s got the talent and the ability,” says Ackermann.

“But as I’ve said with other players, Eddie has worked with a squad now for two or three years and he’s going to believe in certain guys. For there to be change, only Eddie can do it.

“We’re happy with the way Billy has performed and developed his game in the last year and hopefully it will keep on going.”

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Aled Brew on the talent of Joe Cokanasiga, the wisdom of Jamie Roberts, and targeting silverware at Bath Rugby

Aled Brew was Bath’s Players’ Player of the Year last season and chalked up more minutes on the field than any other player, but the modest winger expects to fulfil little more than a cameo this term.

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The Welshman, 32, believes newly-arrived youngster Joe Cokanasiga and fit-again Semesa Rokoduguni will be the first-choice wingers at The Rec.

And while he will still be out to pinch the shirt off their backs, he says he is being “real with himself” and not expecting to have the amount of game time he had last campaign.

England Under-20 star Cokanasiga has joined Bath from London Irish on a three-year deal, while England wing Rokoduguni is back from shoulder surgery.

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“When you’ve got young boys like Joe coming through, you’ve got to expect that he’s going to have a good crack,” said Brew.
“He’s the future and I’m coming to the latter end of my career now. You’ve got to understand that.
“I’ll be here pushing Joe and pushing Roko but you’ve got to have the understanding and be real with yourself that they’re going to be playing the majority if they’re playing well.
“With Roko back, Joe here, Jack Wilson and Cooper Vuna, we’ve a lot of wingers. We’re training hard and pushing each other on the field. It’s good to have that rivalry but we know that the team comes first.

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“If they don’t then I’ll have to take my chance and try and hold on to my spot.

“I’m happy in my position. I don’t expect to be playing week in week out like I did last year, but I just want the team to do well and get some silverware.

“Last season went really well for me, and I didn’t expect to play as much rugby as I did. It was a long season for me and I coped with it pretty well. But you’ve got to be realistic at 32.”

Brew, who has nine international caps, said the impact of fellow Wales international Jamie Roberts on the squad had been immediate and forceful.

“I’ve known Jamie for years and he’s not shy, he’s a confident bloke,” Brew said. “He’s definitely brought a lot of experience and a no-nonsense character as well.

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“Out on the field if something’s not good enough he’s expressing it and telling the boys.

“He’s training hard and he’s definitely a good role model for people to see. Everyone knows how successful he’s been and is. Even though he’s hit those heights he’s still cracking on to perfect himself.

“He’s the first to rehab and after training he’s doing extras.

“When the Academy boys see him do all those things, they think ‘These are the standards it’s going to take’."

The original version of this article first appeared in The Rugby Paper.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Gloucester full-back Jason Woodward presses case for England place

My thoughts for The Times on Gloucester's European Challenge Cup semi-final win over Newcastle Falcons.

He threw a couple of rash early passes, but after that it was a supremely eye-catching display by Gloucester full-back Jason Woodward, whose pace onto the ball, lines of running and off-loading dexterity were all top class.

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With Bath's Anthony Watson sidelined for six months by a torn Achilles sustained against Ireland in the Six Nations, the door is surely now more than ajar for New Zealand-born Woodward to tour South Africa with England this summer, not least because his attacking mentality is similar to Watson's.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

James Simpson-Daniel: Johan Ackermann has turned Gloucester pack around

James Simpson-Daniel believes European Champions Cup rugby next season is within Gloucester's reach - but claims a top-four finish is likely to be beyond the club.

Former Gloucester wing Simpson-Daniel believes new head coach Johan Ackermann is giving the Cherry and Whites' pack more bite, but says they remain a little short in depth in the outside backs.

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“Johan inherited a side that’s been coming in the bottom three for the last few seasons, but Ed Slater has been a great signing and that doggedness up front has won them games," said Simpson-Daniel.

“Ackermann’s judgement has been spot on. He’s focusing on building a bigger, nastier pack.

“It’s a shame Ross Moriarty is leaving but Ruan Ackermann is very similar to Ross, and the good thing is Johan is using youngsters like Jake Polledri and keeping them in the team to reward them for their good performances.”

‘Sinbad’ now believes that European Champions Cup rugby is within Gloucester’s sights.

“A side finishing in the top six is structured around winning at home and picking up some points on the road, and I think that is happening,” said Simpson-Daniel.

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“As for top four, no, I don’t think Gloucester are title contenders yet.”

Since Jonny May’s departure to Leicester on the eve of the new season, Simpson-Daniel believes Gloucester have been light at wing - a situation that has not been helped by recent shoulder injuries to Ollie Thorley and Henry Purdy.

“It’s an area where Gloucester are less strong,” said Simpson-Daniel. “It’s an understatement to say that when Jonny decided to leave it wasn’t ideal timing.

“Gloucester were left behind in strength and depth in that position."

James Simpson Daniel was playing at the PokerStars Festival London. Join the world's most popular online poker sites at PokerStars and visit BetStars News for a full Six Nations preview.