Monday 23 April 2018

Grobler shadow hangs over Munster

Van Graan and Co left in awkward position by signing of South African

Gerbrandt Grobler during Munster training at the University of Limerick. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Gerbrandt Grobler during Munster training at the University of Limerick. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Gerbrandt Grobler has a private moment during Munster’s training session at the University of Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ahead of the biggest game of their season, talk at Munster continues to be dominated by the presence of South African second-row Gerbrandt Grobler in their squad.

At yesterday's media event at the University of Limerick, head coach Johann van Graan distanced himself from the signing of a player who served a two-year doping ban between 2014 and 2016 having admitted to taking a banned anabolic steroid.

Johann van Graan said he was fully aware of the debate the presence of Grobler has caused and understands why it is taking place. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Johann van Graan said he was fully aware of the debate the presence of Grobler has caused and understands why it is taking place. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Captain Peter O'Mahony and star player Conor Murray were both asked for their thoughts on the matter and both men backed their team-mate.

In truth, the trio were put in an unenviable position. None of them were involved in recruiting the South African and now, for better or worse, Grobler is a part of the squad and could make his debut for the senior side on Sunday against Castres.

Whatever their private feelings, it wouldn't do to start slating a team-mate in the build-up to the game.

In offering his full backing to the 25-year-old lock, O'Mahony took a black-and-white approach to the issue - stating that "great guy" Grobler has served his sentence and that his indiscretions were in the past.

That was similar to the line taken last week by coach Johann van Graan who inherited this issue from Rassie Erasmus who signed his compatriot.

Yesterday, the Munster supremo said he was fully aware of the debate the presence of Grobler has caused and understands why it is taking place.

"I can understand it," he said. "Doping is wrong. You can never say anything good about it. In Gerbrandt Grobler's case, he had a two-year ban from World Rugby. He serves his ban, went to another club, Munster signed him.

"I came in eight weeks ago. I am greeting 'GG' and all other players, all management except (defence coach) JP Ferreira because JP came in a bit later.

"I am the coach of Munster at this stage. I am not going to comment on any process. I said what I wanted to say last week. It's my responsibility to take care of all of the people at Munster at this stage and that I can do it well."

The issue is set to rumble on for a while yet. IRFU chief executive Philip Browne will face questions about the union's role in sanctioning the transfer at a media event this morning.

Browne has previously stated that "the IRFU has a zero-tolerance policy to cheating in rugby", but the organisation signed off on the signing of Grobler last summer.

The press release that confirmed his arrival alongside fellow South African Chris Cloete began with the words "Munster Rugby and the IRFU are pleased to confirm the signing of flanker Chris Cloete and lock Gerbrandt Grobler".

One wonders if their emotions remain the same.

The story flew under the radar in July with the rugby world fully focused on the Lions' third Test against New Zealand, while the ankle injury that Grobler suffered in the warm-up game against Worcester kept the issue below the surface until he returned to fitness.

Murray revealed that his team-mate has been rattled by the focus on him in the past seven days.

That is understandable, he has spoken previously about his decision to take steroids and may have believed that the issue had been put to bed.

In Paris, he seems to have been able to get on with his job at Racing without much fuss but in the Top 14 he was a medium fish in an enormous pond.

As one of 18 non-Irish qualified overseas signings in the Irish provinces' senior squads, playing for one of Europe's biggest names who operate in a more concentrated media market, he was always going to attract more attention.

Speaking on the 'Second Captains' podcast, Shane Horgan explained why he feels Munster made an error of judgement in recruiting a player with such a dubious past.

"I think there's a certain criteria for Ireland in particular now bringing in (players from overseas), because we produce so many good players," he said.

"One of those criteria is that they have to be so much better than any like-for-like players that Ireland may have... Another criteria is that they're going to play lots of games, set culture and bring in new ideas and I'm all for that. We're in a position now where we've got so much home-grown talent and I think people coming in from overseas can add to that and make it better.

"The other criteria is that they're whiter than whiter than white when it comes to drugs and drug testing and, unfortunately, although the rules say that you get another chance and that's fine - but Ireland, Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht don't have to be the ones to provide them with that chance and I don't think they should have."

O'Mahony and Murray felt obliged to back their team-mate, but the argument that he has done his time and is now rehabilitated is one that can be picked apart.

It is justified to wonder if Grobler is still benefiting from the dosages he took during his period of drug abuse, it is then valid to question whether the giant lock is putting team-mates and opponents in danger when plays this collision sport.

Murray denied that the presence of a known drug cheat in the squad sends out a message to other players that doping is an acceptable route to the top, but what message does it send to the hopefuls in the Academy who see a well-renumerated import ahead of them in the pecking order despite his dubious past.

"As for as me and the other players are concerned, he's been great for us and we'll certainly stand by him," O'Mahony said.

Perhaps they have no other choice, but they are being put in an awkward position by the men who decided Grobler was the right man for Munster.

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