Thursday, 24 October 2013

Drugs in rugby - a story of saints and sinners

Five Aviva Premiership players tested positive for recreational drug use last season. They were fined £5,000 each. That’s one heck of an expensive joint or line of cocaine. A strong deterrent, you would think, to those tempted to commit future abuses.

Five is a low figure – it amounts to about one per cent of Premiership players. If you contrast that to society at large, then rugby players are saints. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, about nine per cent of the adult population takes an illicit drug during a calendar year.

Moreover, the 2012-13 season was the first time that the RFU’s anti-doping scheme had recorded a positive test for a recreational drug since the scheme was introduced in 2009-10. And not a single positive test has been recorded for a performance-enhancing drug. Compared with the general population, rugby players’ halos really are burning bright.

But there is a ‘but’. The RFU’s anti-doping policy, administered in partnership with Premiership Rugby, was drawn up following Bath Rugby’s dark period in 2009, when five players – or, put another way, a third of the first team – received bans for either taking recreational drugs or refusing to take tests. In the wake of that, the RFU not only drew up its new policy but also – in conjunction with the players’ union, the Rugby Players Association – introduced an education programme to highlight both the dangers of drugs and the new testing regime.

In the wake of such an awareness campaign, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that five players have still been stupid enough to dabble in either cocaine, cannabis, ecstasy or amphetamines.

Following the publication of the RFU report on Tuesday, former Bath Rugby prop David Barnes, who is now director of the RPA, made a comment that blended reassurance with vigilance.

“A small number of adverse findings via the illicit drugs programme is a reminder that we can never assume the anti-doping job has been ‘done’,” said Barnes.

“It is reassuring to see another season concluded with no systemic doping amongst the senior elite players in England. They continue to be role models for the wider game.”

While a jump from zero positive tests to five is significant, it should be remembered that many professional players inhabit an environment that is virtually alien to the man on the street; an environment in which they are often lauded as giants among mortals. As Justin Harrison, one of the ex-Bath players banned four years ago, told me: “It [drugs] is an easy trap. Players have pretty high amounts of disposable income and most of the guys are being repeatedly told how invincible they are, so you push yourself to the limit, both physically and socially.”

And that’s why, as Barnes puts it, the anti-doping job is never ‘done’.

This column first appeared in The Bath Chronicle.

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