On November 23 last, Munster's James Cronin was asked to provide a urine sample immediately after his side's European Champions Cup draw with Racing 92 at Thomond Park. Cronin started the game on the bench, and was brought on for Jeremy Loughman after 50 minutes.
The previous day Cronin had collected a prescription from a pharmacy in Cork. The team doctor had prescribed the Munster prop with an antibiotic for a chest complaint but the pharmacy mistakenly gave him a prescription which had been made up for another customer - who also happened to be called James Cronin. On top of an antibiotic, this bag contained a drug known as Prednesol and, as per the instructions on the label, Cronin took five tablets that afternoon, and four more the next morning, the day of the game.
Prednesol contains prednisolone, a steroid, which is a banned substance.
Five days later, swimmer Robbie Powell was chosen for an out-of-competition drug test. At 19, he was a relative newcomer to the top end of his sport having just been added to Swim Ireland's tier one panel, and his course work at DCU was time-consuming.
The university student has suffered from eczema since he was a child and in that November week he was particularly troubled by it on his hands, to the extent that his sleep had been affected. During the 2018 Youth Olympics in Argentina, the Irish team doctor prescribed a cream called Denvercort for Powell's ailment. The cream comes in a green and white tube. A day or two before he was tested, when his eczema had flared up, Powell rubbed what he called "a pea-sized amount" of cream on his hands. At some point a cream called Trofodermin, which comes in an almost identical green and white tube, ended up in his bag.
On the day in question, he thought he was using Denvercort, but he actually applied Trofodermin to his hands.
Trofodermin contains clostebol, a steroid, which is a banned substance.
The samples provided by Cronin and Powell were sent to the WADA-accredited laboratory in Cologne, where both tested positive for banned substances.
In both instances, subsequent investigations came to the same conclusion: that both Cronin or Powell bore 'No Significant Fault or Negligence'. In other words, they had not intentionally set out to cheat.
There are a lot of similarities in the two cases - at least to a point. Cronin had the bad fortune to suffer what appears to have been a bad mistake by a pharmacy and Powell had the bad fortune to pick up a tube of lotion that looked exactly like the one he meant to use. But while Powell's bad luck continued, as his case fell under the jurisdiction of Sport Ireland, Cronin caught a break. His case was handled within the game of rugby, in this instance European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR).
Powell was banned for 12 months; Cronin was banned for one month, at a time when there were no games because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Cronin's ban has already lapsed; Powell's runs until November 28 next.
Sport Ireland, you see, are sticklers for this sort of thing. They set about investigating every aspect of Powell's story, and it all added up, except for one troubling detail: According to Sport Ireland, Powell "could not explain how he came into possession of Trofodermin".
However, Powell "pursued every possible avenue" to find out how it ended up in his bag. The swimmer "believes he must have come into possession of the tube some time between October 2018 and November 2019. He has contacted athletes he roomed with since 2018 and every friend or family member he holidayed with since 2018. He has shared various rooms and changing rooms with different athletes and peers and he could have unintentionally and unknowingly came into possession of the Trofodermin cream at any point."
Sport Ireland concluded that Powell had been very unfortunate. The swimmer, they said, had made "a compelling case".
Cronin, too, had been unfortunate when receiving the wrong prescription. Had he just taken the antiobiotics he was prescribed there would have been no issue, but he proceeded to take the steroids without question. In the ECPR judgement, it was noted that Cronin had been prescribed antiobiotics on several previous occasions so he should have "at least stopped to consider why this time he was required to take two sets of medication instead of one".
The judicial officer for ECPR, Antony Davies, also added that "players cannot rely blindly on the advice of their team doctors or other medical practitioners. Players are responsible for what they ingest, and so must carry out their own checks to cross-check the assurances of their doctors." Cronin, then, bore some fault, just as Powell did.
Davies had "some sympathy" for Cronin because of the pharmacy's "serious" mistake.
In the anti-doping world, a finding of 'No Significant Fault or Negligence' allows for a certain degree of mitigation in handing out a punishment. But ultimately, as harsh as it can be, the principle of strict liability still applies. This means an athlete is responsible for everything they put in - or on - their body.
Typically, there are three categories which apply to 'No Significant Fault or Negligence' when deciding on a punishment. They are 'low' (12-15 months), 'medium' (16-19 months) and 'high' (20-24 months). Sport Ireland said Powell fell into the first category, 'low'; ECPR said Cronin also fell into that category.
Yet one got a 12-month ban, in line with international guidelines, and the other got one month. How is this a fair and equitable system when such a huge discrepancy in two similar cases can arise?
Sport Ireland had the right to appeal the leniency of Cronin's ban but chose not to. Given how it handled the Powell case, and previous cases, Sport Ireland should have appealed, if only to send a clear message. There was a lot to be gained by keeping the Cronin case in the public eye for longer, and forcing rugby to face up to its responsibilities.
There's a perception in elite sport that when it comes to anti-doping, athletes are not operating on a level playing pitch. The very least athletes deserve is consistency.
All sports are equal; it's just some are more equal than others.
Sunday Indo Sport