Saturday 19 January 2019

Neil Francis: It's my belief that upwards of 20 players have taken some form of PED in Irish provinces over the last 30 years

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Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Cooperstown is where they go to be venerated. It is a quaint little village in Otsego County, New York, where the baseball Hall of Fame is located. The game of baseball decided there needed to be a place to pay homage to 'the best of us'. The majority of its inductees are a shining beacon of athletic righteousness and forthright character, underpinned by a proper code of values and sportsmanship. Alabaster images of America's finest in their pantheon.

In truth, there are quite a number of grubby humans adorning the walls in Cooperstown. There are things that players did, before, during and after their careers, questionable things that run at an adjunct to how they comported themselves at the height of their sporting careers. There are things too odious to mention here, safe to say the #metoo crew would be a long way down the list of plaintiffs.

There is troubling news emanating from Cooperstown: Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, two of the biggest steroid cheats in the game, will be inducted maybe in just the space of a year. Men who had lied under oath before confessing to the unprecedented scale of their connivance and cheating will be voted in by the moral custodians of the game - a cabal of baseball cognoscenti who point to both players' undoubted brilliance and their contribution to the game without recourse as to why they were that brilliant.

There are likely upwards of 30 drug cheats in there before them anyway - suspected, never caught.

Then there's the fact too that Bud Selig, the commissioner for the MLB, has also been inducted - a man who sat back and took a 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil' attitude to the 'steroid era' of the 1980s and '90s. Why the '60s, '70s, noughties and current decade is excluded remains a mystery to me. Most of baseball's current rosters take PEDs.

So a dangerous precedent to set, to admit two known dopers, men who cheated with impunity, but they be called 'the best of us.' The voters? Custodians? Guardians?

This Gerbrandt Grobler thing has caused bit of a stir on the island, so maybe it's time for a little bit of context. He came up on my radar two years ago when I first wrote about him. At the time what concerned me was how a 21-year-old would be able to administer these steroids. A lot of steroids can be ingested orally but drostanolone is typically injected. A five-week cycle is standard.

My question was: Where did he get the gear and more importantly who advised him on how to inject a potentially lethal substance into his body? The right dose? How to load up the syringe? Where to inject? Most guys that age can't tie their own shoelaces. Where did the help come from? Why weren't all the franchise management team brought into the inquiry? Why did he plead guilty? No contest! Hands in the air! Most dopers never 'fess up, even if the evidence is conclusive. Did he take a bullet for someone?

Maybe I just underestimate the intelligence of South African youth. In 2016, 12 schoolboys (under 18s) tested positive for anabolic steroids out of a random test of 54 players selected. Nearly 25 per cent - that just couldn't be right, could it? There is a culture in South Africa. It's undeniable.

Like a lot of South African dopers, Grobler's first port of call was France. The culture there too is undeniable. One significant person involved in the Top 14 told me once about the South African players there who take PEDs. "It's like drinking a cup of coffee for them," he said.

Grobler ended up in Racing and I saw him play a couple of times. He is a very decent second-row. How do we know that Grobler didn't engage again in doping when he was in Paris? Dan Carter, Joe Rokocoko and Juan Imhoff, all Racing players, were caught with corticosteroids in their system last season. Magic up a TUE and everything was fine again.

Did Munster or the IRFU test Grobler since he came to these shores? If they did would they care to share that information? Doping is a recidivist form of behaviour rather than just a mistake or error of judgment you make when you are 21.

How did Grobler end up here in the first place? Well, we all know about the Donnacha Ryan saga and suddenly Munster are seriously short on Champions Cup-standard second-rows.

It would appear that Grobler was on his way to Gloucester but they could not get him a work visa and so he was on the market. Munster were in a panic and their need for cover superseded any potential fallout from hiring a drugs cheat. Grobler will be joining Gloucester next season after most likely spending his time in Ireland playing for Munster 'A'.

It is richly ironic that Johan Ackermann is the head coach of Gloucester. In 1997 Ackerman was found guilty of taking the anabolic steroid nandrolone (the steroid of choice). A two-year ban was handed out to the Springbok second-row. "I made a mistake, I was young and foolish and I paid a heavy price for my actions."

No namby-pamby recriminations from the shed about a drug cheat joining their club, not just a player but head coach, a position of real influence.

The Grobler party started about 10 days ago and pretty much everyone threw their tuppence worth into the ring . . . whether they wanted to or not.

The admirable Chris Henry launched a broadside from Belfast last week. Sometimes when you are a current player it's a good idea to keep out of these off-the-field scrums. Henry's sentiment was well-intentioned but I fear he may have undone himself. Under the headline, 'Ulster star Chris Henry says signing of doper "unacceptable''.'

Henry's career with Ulster started in 2006 and in 2007 Carlo Del Fava joined the northern province for two seasons. Del Fava had received a two-year doping ban in 2002 when he was caught with stanozolol in his system. "I made a mistake, I was young and foolish and I paid a heavy price for my actions," he said. Now Del Fava is an anti-doping poster boy for World Rugby and he lectures to players who partake in the Under 20 World Cups. Don't do what I did, blah blah blah.

In the recent doping list issued by World Rugby, Glen Robertson, the two-time Under 20 World Cup winner, got a four-year ban for clenbuterol - another Class A PED. What was that you were saying to me, Carlo? I wasn't paying attention.

In terms of pointing fingers at doping cheats I am not sure Grobler and Del Fava are the only ones in the firing line. It is my firmly held belief that there have been upwards of 20 players who have taken anabolic steroids or some form of PED who have played for the Irish provinces in the last 30 years - a lot of those indigenous players. Of the players who were caught the vast majority pleaded 'cough bottle', a nod, a wink, one harrumph and they walked out the side door.

There was one that really should be sent to the hall of shame. Let's call him 'Player X'. Player X came from a small, unfashionable club in Ulster. He joined a big, fashionable club in Ulster and eventually forced his way on to the Ulster side. He tested positive for a metabolite of nandrolone - a proper steroid - after a Heineken Cup match in the late 1990s. Well, you can imagine the scene. What was going to happen? A firing squad at dawn? A lifetime ban? Shunned from his community?

No, it was much worse! "You are a bold wee boy, a very bold wee boy. Your Ulster contract is cancelled and get back to your provincial backwater of a club. We never want to see ye again. Hold out the hand for the bata mór and six of the best for ye."

For the life of me I don't know how he survived that ordeal. Zero tolerance 1990s style, which begot zero tolerance 2017 style. Player X played out his club career until he retired. Not a day's sanction. Not so much as a, "I made a mistake, I was young and foolish . . ."

I have never, ever heard a player who has doped and never been caught stand up and say, "I made a mistake; I was young and foolish . . ." There is no act of contrition unless you are caught.

And so this episode will eventually quieten down but be grateful to everyone who jumped on the bandwagon of indignation - we might be predictable but at least we still have a sense of values.

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