Wednesday 11 December 2019

Sinead Kissane: Irish rugby on slippery slope after decision to employ doper - it sends the wrong message to clean players trying to earn living

Gerbrandt Grobler's presence at Munster has potential to hold back others who have not used drugs

Gerbrandt Grobler in training for Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Gerbrandt Grobler in training for Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

The day after Munster confirmed that Gerbrandt Grobler was fit to make his competitive debut after recovering from ankle surgery came the news that the most senior player in the squad, fellow lock Billy Holland, signed a two-year contract extension.

Holland had started every game for Munster this season - 16 games in-a-row - before being sidelined for the Connacht game last weekend.

Holland stands for everything that's good about Munster. He works bloody hard. He's a leader. He showed loyalty and perseverance by staying with the province despite having to wait almost a decade to become a regular starter for European games after years spent down the pecking order behind the likes of Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Mick O'Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan.

When Grobler was signed by Munster last summer on a season-long deal he was tipped to become the regular starting lock alongside fellow South African Jean Kleyn.

Grobler was one of the best players for Racing 92 last season after returning to rugby following a two-year ban for testing positive for the anabolic steroid drostanolone.

"I was 21 at the time, young, stupid, and struggling with serious ankle and shoulder injuries," Grobler said in an interview last season about his decision to take drugs.

"They weren't getting any better, and I knew I needed to start playing again or I could lose my contract.

"I had my back against the wall and had reached a point where I thought, 'OK, I've done all I can, so what else can I do?'".

Grobler had every right to resume playing after the ban and there has been a certain amount of empathy for him.

"If you are being humanist about it you would say he did his time, he got past it," former Ireland head coach Eddie O'Sullivan said on 'Off The Ball' on Wednesday night.

"It doesn't sit easy with me but I find it very hard to condemn the guy for life. That's the human side of the story".

But, as always with doping in sport, the 'human side' of the story has a few different faces.

This was the final season in Holland's current contract.

I'm not at all privy to the details of his contract talks but it's not hard to imagine that if Grobler was fit from the start of the season that could have had a knock-on effect on Holland's playing time. And by extension, it could possibly have lessened the strength of Holland's bargaining position when it came to negotiating a new deal with Munster.

Of course Munster needed another lock on their books before Tadhg Beirne joins from Scarlets next season. But the possibility that a player, whose suspension for doping only finished in October 2016, could in any way affect the future of another player would have left a major stink.

In other sports like athletics, clean athletes continually get caught in the cross-fire of convicted dopers who are allowed compete again.

Clean athletes get cheated out of money, medals, moments, they might train harder to stay up with the dopers and pick up injuries.

When it comes to arguments for players/athletes to be given a second chance after a ban the emphasis tends to be on the athlete who doped rather than on clean athletes and protecting their livelihood.

What's also skimmed past is that a sportsperson's professional career isn't for life, it's probably around 10 years - a short time-frame compared to most careers.

Which is why it needs to be protected. If you want to know about the advantages of giving a player who served a doping ban a second chance then look at the state of athletics and cycling.

I was at the World Athletics Championships in London last summer and didn't need the sight of Linford Christie wandering around in the shadows or the reverberations still felt by Justin Gatlin's win a few evenings previously for the absolute folly of forgiveness when it comes to protecting the integrity of a sport to be reinforced.

When Ger Gilroy started this debate about whether Munster should have signed Grobler on Off The Ball AM on Wednesday morning, there were questions raised about why the media were only dealing with this now as opposed to when Munster signed him last summer.

This is irrelevant, there is no statute of limitation on when an issue like this should be discussed.

What was also used to effectively shut down debate was the excuse that "everybody makes mistakes" which ignores that what sportspeople do is different to what most other people do.

Not everyone's job involves kids watching them work, cheering them and supporting them. Not everyone's job involves people paying to see them work.

Not everyone's job involves holding the trust of hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of people.

Not everyone's job involves representing people, representing counties, a province, a country.

A professional sportsperson who represents a team, a people, is held in higher regard to everyone else in the community and with that comes huge responsibility.

When it comes to an attitude about drugs in sport we're all involved to varying degrees because we create the climate.

If there is a climate of indifference towards Munster signing a player who served a suspension for doping then what about the danger of that trickling down to the decision-making of some other 21-year-old player who's struggling with injuries, fearful of losing his contract and wondering what to do next?

If the climate is created by those around the game, the culture is set by those in power and with power.

Munster - and the IRFU for clearing the deal - should not have signed a player who served a ban for doping because it shows there is a pathway for players to get back into playing after deciding to dope, which continues the vicious cycle of some people believing that taking performance- enhancing drugs is a worthwhile risk.

The next time Irish rugby players are asked to wear a version of those #keeprugbyclean T-shirts, how will that sit with a decision by a province to sign the services of a player who doped?

The media debate has started on what Irish rugby's stance should be - every case needs to be looked at individually but when it comes to giving out contracts there should be zero tolerance with regard to a doping past to protect the livelihood of clean players.

Forgiveness is a wonderful attribute to have in life but it has different repercussions when it comes to protecting the integrity of sport.

Munster head coach Johann van Graan said this week that Grobler's ban "is a long time in the past".

It's not. The position Irish rugby takes on an issue like this has ramifications for the present and the future of the game here.

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