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.”