Tony Ward: I'll hold up my hands and admit to using cortisone
Published 11/10/2016 | 02:30
The issue of performance-enhancing drugs in rugby has reared its head yet again with the doping controversy surrounding Racing 92 trio Dan Carter, Juan Imhoff and Joe Rokocoko, who all tested positive for corticosteroids after the Top 14 final victory over Toulon.
Racing deny that the drug was taken for performance-enhancing reasons, insisting its usage was part of a medical procedure to aid recovery from injury and complied fully with anti-doping rules.
I abhor the use of all supplements, never mind banned substances.
If any rugby player is proven to be playing beyond medical acceptability (specifically performance enhancement), there should be only one outcome, and that's a life ban - whether it be a living legend like Carter or Paddy Murphy from Ballygobackward RFC.
This is an issue I find difficult to get my head around. Never in my years playing rugby did I hear 'performance enhancing' even mentioned, never mind practised.
But here I will hold up my hands and admit to using cortisone - not, I might add, for performance enhancement, but purely to return to play.
Around 1980/81, I suffered a medial knee ligament injury and despite months of frustrating treatment, including a visit to Liverpool FC, I could not shake it.
Eventually I got a cortisone injection from my then GP in Limerick and it cleared what had seemed a never-ending injury. When you are a player you just want to play. It had nothing whatsoever to do with performance enhancement.
The only other time I resorted to cortisone was towards the end of my career, when playing for Greystones. In a race against time to make what was effectively a league final against St Mary's, I had a similar injection for a rib cartilage.
For the record, I had a stinker in that game which we lost. So much for performance-enhancing.
Not for a minute would I profess to be an expert on the subject - quite the opposite in fact - but I want to believe that the game I love is clean.
I wholeheartedly support commentators from other sports for which abuse has become a blight in their campaign to oust cheats whatever the sporting code.
I doubt pro rugby is pure. Call me naive but I hope to God it is.
Certainly the issue hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for the upcoming Champions Cup games.
They say a league table never lies, so with Ulster and Leinster sharing top spot, Munster fifth and Connacht eighth, you would assume that's the pecking order of the provinces heading into European action.
Not so. On the evidence of the first games of consequence last weekend, I'd rate them Connacht, Leinster, Ulster and Munster.
At the Sportsground on Friday, Connacht returned to the level of intensity, that high-tempo, energy-packed possession game that made them such an irresistible, title-winning force five months ago.
Credit Ulster for coming back to level it up by way of two quick converted tries after the interval, but once Connacht got back into the groove, anything other than a home win would have been a travesty.
For the first time this season the absence of the Robbie Henshaw, AJ MacGinty, Aly Muldowney axis wasn't noticed. It is easy on the eye, and it's rugby with a purpose. This was winning rugby the Pat Lam way and long may it reign.
There were big performances all over the field, including the five replacements as well as last-minute call up Craig Ronaldson.
Dave Heffernan, Caolin Blade, Cian Kelleher and James Connolly were particularly impressive - and bear in mind that had Tom McCartney, Kieran Marmion, Matt Healy Eoin McKeon (early exit) or Sean O'Brien been fully fit, it is doubtful any of that quartet would have figured.
That emerging depth makes Friday's convincing win all the more pleasing and relevant.
Hooker Heffernan had an immense, Dane Coles-like game, setting the tone with his all-action style.
Connolly was a telling substitution for McKeon, while Blade was a revelation in every aspect of scrum-half play, not least his wrist-driven pass off either side.
As for Kelleher, I am not in the least surprised at his instant impact. His most effective position is unquestionably full-back, but with the excellent Tiernan O'Halloran in situ, a two-month run on the left wing in Healy's absence will do for now.
Put it all together and it makes for nice timing ahead of the Toulouse game on Saturday.
For Ulster, there are still forward issues to be addressed, especially in the front-row and back-row.
The enforced departure of Ruan Pienaar is not helping, and they have my sympathy, but what disappointed me most from them in Galway was the lack of the desire that is so evident at every home game - and that is unacceptable.
As for the other derby, the less said the better. Leinster took it pulling up, with Johnny Sexton, Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and the rapidly emerging Joey Carbery on a different planet to their opposite numbers.
Munster, for all their more obvious virtues, are still bereft of guile in midfield. Rory Scannell carried well into contact but on occasion when the phase play went into double figures it was back to the boot and some pretty senseless Hail Mary kicking.
Psychologically it handed the initiative to the side in blue -not that they needed any extra gee-up.
Possession for Munster looks a liability, with their tactical kicking average at best; their kick and chase is a tired and demented tactic.
Few if any of their players emerged with credit. Try picking a combined Leinster-Munster team based on that game, and I feel just one man in red - CJ Stander - might make the starting line up.
Even Conor Murray was sucked into the general malaise. For Peter O'Mahony, the head was willing but the body unable. It's called match fitness and it will come in time.
It does not augur well for Sunday's trip to Paris - regardless of Racing's problems.