Tuesday 20 February 2018

IRFU drug policy falls short of zero tolerance

Union will review approach to new signings as Munster stand by Grobler

Philip Browne, CEO IRFU, John Quinlan, CEO Aviva Ireland, Martin Murphy, stadium director, and John Delaney, CEO FAI, at yesterday’s announcement that Aviva are extending the naming rights of the Aviva Stadium until 2025. Photo: Sportsfile
Philip Browne, CEO IRFU, John Quinlan, CEO Aviva Ireland, Martin Murphy, stadium director, and John Delaney, CEO FAI, at yesterday’s announcement that Aviva are extending the naming rights of the Aviva Stadium until 2025. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This was supposed to be a celebration, but stepping back from the crowd and observing two chief executives fighting fires back-to-back was quite something.

At an event to announce the continuation of Aviva's naming-rights deal at Lansdowne Road, John Delaney was getting grilled by the football media on the Martin O'Neill contract saga while Philip Browne was fielding questions on the uncomfortable topic of doping in rugby.

The IRFU had even helpfully brought along their anti-doping report from the 2016/17 season, which features in its introduction a statement from Browne that is difficult to square with the union's actions in signing off on Munster's decision to offer Gerbrandt Grobler a one-year contract.

"We operate a zero-tolerance policy to cheating within rugby," Browne wrote in the report.

It left one wondering just what the phrase "zero tolerance" means to the union chief who confirmed that the deal to sign the South African, who served a two-year ban between 2014 and 2016 for taking an anabolic steroid, had been signed off by the union's performance director David Nucifora in full knowledge of the player's past.

The anti-doping document details the union's strategy in this area, but recruitment from overseas does not feature in the seven bullet points listed. Browne conceded that this was a gap the union need to address.

"If you were to ask me 'do we have a specific policy, for that specific set of circumstances?', the answer is 'no we don't'," he said.

"Do we need to consider having a policy for that particular set of circumstances, the answer is we need to consider that.

Crying

"The reality is - there was a view taken, that there was a crying need for a second-row in Munster, Tadhg Beirne was not available until this year, Rassie (Erasmus) obviously, with his knowledge of South African players, identified this player, and a decision was taken to bring him in.

"On the basis he'd been playing for a year in Racing, that he was medically cleared, he'd done his time, and the view was here's a young fella, who made a rash decision, regrets it and at the end of the day he could make a contribution to Munster for a year.

"Within an environment that is very different to any other, at the end of the day there are stringent anti-doping protocols and systems in place, which we are proud of.

"If you're asking me would we consider putting a policy in place to deal with that particular set of circumstances, I think we'll consider it, because it's obviously an issue, and to be fair, you've raised the question, 'from a values point of view, is it the right thing?' - and we need to have that discussion, and we will have it."

Later, in an interview with Off The Ball, Browne clarified that the decision had not come across his desk and that it had been a decision made by the rugby department, which is headed by Nucifora.

Munster then gave their side of the story in a written answer to questions posed by the Newstalk radio show, and were resolutely standing by their decision to recruit Grobler.

Insisting due diligence was carried out by the province, they confirmed they had full knowledge of the South African's doping past but decided to sign him based on their playing needs and the character references they'd received from unspecified sources.

Yet they insisted that they stand with the union in applying a "zero-tolerance" policy which doesn't tally with the decision to ignore a two-year ban when recruiting a "world-class" player.

It left one wondering what 'zero tolerance' means to those running Irish rugby.

Certainly, Browne was happy with a tale of "a young man, who made a poor decision in an environment which is very different to the environment he's operating in now".

Grobler was 22 when he was caught for doping after playing a Currie Cup match for Western Province.

Asked about how the environment is different in South Africa, Browne said, "because we're extremely well monitored and tested by Sport Ireland.

"In fact, the first anti-doping tribunal set up in this country was an anti-doping and appeals tribunal set up by the IRFU in the late 1990s, which I set up.

"We have a strong policy in relation to things.

"Do we need to consider what we'd do in a similar set of circumstances should they arise in future, the answer is: yes, we should probably consider that."

If the IRFU have such concerns about the "environment" in South Africa, it doesn't appear to affect their recruitment policy currently.

There are 14 South African players in the senior squads of the Irish provinces, while Munster have just recruited two teenagers straight from school from the Rainbow Nation to bolster their Academy.

Joe Schmidt has capped five South Africans for Ireland during his time in charge of Ireland and it is likely that more will follow through the residency route.

No one is suggesting they are of a similar mould to Grobler, but if the union have concerns then they need to consider them as they supplement the playing resources.

The South African Rugby Union (SARU) have come out in public about their concerns around steroid abuse in South African schoolboy rugby and players up to Springbok level have received bans for the use of prohibited substances.

These are all things to consider in the coming weeks. The furore over Grobler will die down and Browne indicated yesterday that he has no problem if the player goes on to play for the senior team.

Munster insist their standing has not been diminished by this episode, but the sight of two of their leading international players standing behind a drugs cheat hasn't done them any favours.

Next time a case like this comes across their desk, they and the IRFU must consider what zero tolerance actually means.

Their actions last July fall well short of that.

Subscribe to The Left Wing, Independent.ie's Rugby podcast, with Luke Fitzgerald and Will Slattery for the best discussion and analysis each week. From in depth interviews with some of Irish rugby's biggest stars to unmatched insights into the provinces and the national team, The Left Wing has all your rugby needs covered.

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