Sunday 22 July 2018

Alan Quinlan: Munster must play Gerbrandt Grobler, they can't shove issue into touch

Province have invested too much in lock who needs to answer questions about his doping

Gerbrandt Grobler before lining out for Munster ‘A’ in Irish Independent Park last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Gerbrandt Grobler before lining out for Munster ‘A’ in Irish Independent Park last night. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

It feels like Munster have been fighting off-field fires since the season began in September but the delayed furore over the signing of Gerbrandt Grobler will continue to generate toxic fumes until the player is given the opportunity to speak out about his cheating - to talk about what happened, how it happened and where he sourced the banned substance.

There is an opportunity, if he is allowed and willing, for Grobler to turn his decision to cut corners as a 21-year-old into something truly positive - a message to other young players to stay on the right track.

The bruising South African lock should never have been signed but Munster have invested enough time and money in the player at this stage that I believe he should represent the province at the top level when fit and ready.

I was proud to wear that Munster jersey for 15 years and I want to see him play. I want him to pay back the province and his team-mates, such as Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray, who have stood up for him during an undoubtedly difficult time.

Looking back on the decision to recruit Grobler, it was probably a decision based on panic and one made with clouded judgment.

Lock stocks were desperately low after Donnacha Ryan, Dave Foley and John Madigan left for France, while Jean Kleyn's early-season neck issues and the injury to Dave O'Callaghan also highlighted a worrying lack of depth in that area of the field.

I suspect Rassie Erasmus was quite forceful in pushing through the Grobler signing because ultimately he was a quality player who could fill an enormous void in the middle of the scrum. The pressure to succeed can sometimes twist your rationale.

Having commentated on a couple of Racing games last season, I was well aware of Grobler's chequered past. Ronan O'Gara, his former coach, told me he was an incredibly talented player and a decent fella who clearly made a serious error that will likely taint the rest of his playing career.

A failed drugs test will permanently scar, even - as in the case of former Springbok tighthead Cobus Visagie - when the original ruling is overturned.

Visagie lined up against us for Saracens in the 2008 Heineken Cup semi-final at the Ricoh Arena, seven years after his two-year ban for a failed drugs test was overturned after he successfully argued that the levels of the steroid nandrolone in his system were solely down to supplements, although he missed an entire Super 12 campaign due to the length of the appeals process.

Visagie was exonerated yet that failed test still followed him for the rest of his career, so for Grobler, who admitted to taking a banned substance, his punishment does go beyond the two-year playing ban he has already served.

South African rugby has had quite a few doping incidents in the past 20 years, with a number of top players found guilty of using anabolic steroids, including former Ulster lock Carlo Del Fava.

It was no big shock to us in those days to hear of South African players failing drugs tests; there were stories doing the rounds at the time about malpractices in the country, while any time you played against them you were always struck by the sheer size of the men and you couldn't help but question whether it had been achieved legally.

A lot of opinions have been shared over the Grobler case this week but it's important to remember that this has ultimately been a systems failure and that is what needs to be corrected.

The player, to the best of our knowledge, hasn't broken any rules since arriving in Ireland and does not deserve to be castigated for moving to one of Europe's top clubs to try and further his rugby career.

We have to learn lessons from this and make the most of a badly-managed situation.

Some people have constructed a warped logic that the Grobler signing shows Ireland is willing to become some sort of rugby refuge for convicted drugs cheats, it's sending the wrong message to kids, and the 25-year-old is going to block the development of Munster's young locks, when, clearly, none of that is true.

The reaction to the situation proves that we are collectively, for the most part, disgusted by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The negative attention Grobler has received this week is something that no player would seek, and is a warning to our young players not to follow his lead.

The IRFU policy outlines a 'zero tolerance' for performance-enhancing drugs and while their actions haven't matched their manifesto on this occasion, they are unlikely to make the same mistake again.

Compete

Grobler's signing wouldn't have held any of Munster's locks back even he had been fit for the past four months.

Every top side needs to have at least four quality second-rows if they want to compete domestically and in Europe, and the fact that they have had to use back-rows as emergency lock cover on a number of occasions this season shows how light they are in that department.

There are a number of promising second-rows at the province with big futures ahead but who aren't ripe enough to be playing in Europe or the big PRO14 games. Having a player of Grobler's obvious talents around the squad will help, rather than hinder, the likes of Fineen Wycherley.

Similarly, when Tadhg Beirne arrives next season, the knowledge and skill-set he has developed during his time in Wales is bound to rub off on the next wave of talent.

The stars of the future can also learn a lot from the current senior crop and how they have dealt with adversity; the Grobler noise filling the void left by huge changes in the coaching set-up, delicate contract negotiations for some of their leading players, and an injury crisis that has kept them playing with one hand behind their back for most of the campaign.

Munster have still managed to lay the foundations for a successful season despite dealing with a series of off-field distractions fit for a sporting soap opera, and I don't expect the latest episode will rattle them in the slightest.

This Munster side have proven they have another gear or two for Europe and with a few small improvements they can beat anyone on their day.

Johann van Graan has brought some interesting ideas to their attack but he will be working hard with his players on their discipline and accuracy, as they are the fine margins which can decide a tight European tussle.

A victory against Castres tomorrow, and the quarter-final spot it would secure, would energise the entire province as we head into the Six Nations, and more importantly, reconfirm Munster's status as one of the top sides in Europe.

Irish Independent

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