Saturday 24 February 2018

Neil Francis: Hard to spot doping when your head is in the sand

Body shapes don't lie so it's difficult to believe that use of performance-enhancing drugs is not a reality in rugby

Steffon Armitage (pictured), Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bjorn Basson all returned positive tests before being cleared of any wrongdoing. Ralepelle subsequently returned a second positive test and is currently serving a two year ban
Steffon Armitage (pictured), Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bjorn Basson all returned positive tests before being cleared of any wrongdoing. Ralepelle subsequently returned a second positive test and is currently serving a two year ban
Chiliboy Ralepelle
Bjorn Basson
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Let's start this one with World Rugby's (formerly IRB) response to the news that UK Anti-Doping's list for the last 12 months included 20 rugby players (not all union) from Wales, England and Scotland. Rugby union heads the list of shame.

Indeed the Welsh seem to have a major steroid problem as most of the guilty came from the principality. The response about these cases from World Rugby? Well, there was none.

The claim made last week by French radio station RTL shone a light on alleged medication irregularities involving some players at RC Toulonnais, which included anabolic steroids and pain medication.

A sensational story. World Rugby? Not a peep. Arse in the air, head in the sand. Come November we will get a press release from World Rugby telling us that there were thousands of in-competition tests resulting in no positive findings - a scarcely believable situation. Not one adverse finding in seven World Cups from a major rugby nation. Body shapes don't lie. I reckon in the early competitions somewhere between two and three per cent took performance-enhancing drugs at some stage to get to where they had to be.

Let's start off though with Gerbrandt Grobler - a second-row by trade and a very decent player for Super XV franchise The Stormers playing out of Cape Town. Last season, aged 23, Grobler had an adverse finding for the anabolic steroid Drostanolone, part of the DHT family of androgynous anabolic steroids. It is a cut-and-dried case of doping - Drostanolone is one of the best muscle bulkers on the market.

Read more: Anti-doping chiefs may contact French prosecutors over Toulon allegations ahead of World Cup

Chiliboy Ralepelle
Chiliboy Ralepelle

What puzzled me was not how did he buy the stuff or where did he get it. Drostanolone is an injectable steroid. How is it that when a lot of 23-year-olds can hardly tie their own shoelaces that this one 23-year-old was able to prescribe a cycle of the drug, find syringes somewhere, prepare the dose and inject the exact amount of steroid at the correct time of the cycle and do it without killing himself.

The player got a two-year sentence for the adverse finding. Another thing I found puzzling was that he pleaded guilty. There was no bullshit about a rival sneaking into his bathroom and putting the steroids in his toothpaste. The kid 'fessed up. So if he told the truth and co-operated, "Tell us son where you got the juice, who was the doctor, who advised you?"

These questions would be far more embarrassing than the adverse finding. Plead guilty, take the pain and the whole thing goes away. An isolated incident of doping? Sorry, had to ask the question.

On November 6, 2010 South Africa beat Ireland 23-21 at Lansdowne Road. After the match numbers 14 and 16 were randomly drawn out of the hat and the players on both sides wearing those numbers were asked for a urine sample. Bjorn Basson, South Africa's right winger, and Chiliboy Ralepelle, their replacement hooker, tested positive for methylhexanamine. The substance is a powerful stimulant and is on the WADA banned list. Sprinters love this stuff and quite a number of them have received two-year bans for positive tests.

Pieter de Villiers, the Springbok coach at the time, was allowed to make a number of statements in the immediate aftermath at press conferences. It was like leaving Manuel in charge of Fawlty Towers. It would appear that the entire squad had taken the same supplement which turned out to contain the banned stiumlant. Any number from 1 to 23 would have tested positive for the same substance on the basis that you are personally responsible for any substances that you take.

The two boys could have received a two-year ban. Their case was heard in South Africa and they walked.

It's June 2014 and Chiliboy has joined Toulouse and there is an adverse finding in an out-of-season test. An anabolic agent is found in his system. Drostanolone! Well, holy moley. The steroid of choice. It's probably just a coincidence - the only time in this piece that we will accept a coincidence at face value. Chiliboy got a two-year ban but can play again in April 2016.

This brings us to last week's extraordinary news broken by RTL. Toulon's loveable president, Mourad Boudjellal held a press conference to denounce and deny all allegations. Boudjellal blamed a fraud against France's public health insurance system and suggested some vested interests were trying to sully the club's image and thereby militating against Bernard Laporte's aspirations of becoming president of FFR. Change the subject and go on the offensive. Boudjellal went on the record to say that "we have a lot of controls. There is no doping here. There is no organised doping here".

In June 2012 after the Top 14 final between Toulon and Toulouse, Steffon Armitage tested positive for morphine, which is a narcotic analgesic. It is on WADA's banned list and it is on the list for good reason. Rugby, unfortunately, has become a game of power and strength rather than skill and natural ability. Dominate the physical exchanges and you more than likely will win the game.

What if you were able to take a substance which although it didn't make you bigger or stronger but allowed you to use what power and strength you had in an unrestricted way? What if you were able to tackle or hit your opponent 30-40 per cent harder than he could hit you because you didn't feel the pain? What if you trained harder during the week knowing that you wouldn't feel the aches and pains of the week's training coming to the match?

Read more: Neil Francis: Ambivalence towards PED abuse in sport is truly galling

What if this substance gave you an increased pain threshold, gave you a diminished recognition of injury and enhanced your sense of invincibility? A mood-changer even.

Morphine stops the pain receptors getting to your brain. In terms of the game of rugby, I could not think of a more efficient PED. Given in just the right amount, it is the pain reliever of choice - given in a higher dose it is a powerful sedative.

Armitage had morphine in his system but was cleared because his medical team stated that he took codeine and that it naturally turns into morphine.

Weeks later it transpires that Eifion Lewis-Roberts, a less well-known Welsh prop who played for Toulon in the same Top 14 final against Toulouse, also tested positive for morphine.

Lewis-Roberts also had detectable levels of Pseudoephedrine in his system. He was cleared as well on the basis that "he had not intentionally attempted to enhance his performance". Boudjellal stated at the time: "The player is not a drugs cheat he took a product to relieve pain he was in and that is all there is to it."

What is incontestable here is that both players were found with morphine in their system in the same match and they both managed to get off. There will now be an investigation in France into these latest claims. If they do find something, I might remind World Rugby of Regulation 21.11.2 which relates to doping: 'Consequences for team sports: if more than two members of a team in a team sport are found to have committed an anti-doping rule violation during an event period, the ruling body of the event shall impose an appropriate sanction on the team (eg, loss of points, disqualification from a competition or event or other sanctions) in addition to any consequences imposed upon the individual members of a team committing the anti-doping violation.'

If Toulon are found guilty in any investigation the consequences would be significant. Toulon are a hugely successful club, three-times winners of the European Cup, a top flight club in France and very influential in the transfer market. Any adverse findings would call all this into question.

In the meantime, while we await the outcome, there is the wider picture as raised by the likes of Laurent Benezech in his book on the possibility of doping in the game. Were World Rugby to take their head out of the sand they might come to the conclusion that there is a possibility that there is doping going on in their sport.

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