Sport Rugby

Sunday 15 September 2019

Paul Kimmage: 'Rugby needs to tackle game's dirtiest secret'

Paul O’Connell: ‘Rugby needs to have expert vigilance over legal painkilling medication’. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul O’Connell: ‘Rugby needs to have expert vigilance over legal painkilling medication’. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

"And how appropriate was it that Panadol were sponsoring RTÉ's coverage of the game? You should, of course, carefully read the dosage instructions on the back of the packet, but the temptation would certainly have been there to eat them like Smarties in those closing stages." (Mary Hannigan in Monday's Irish Times)

It's not every day we beat the All Blacks, and in all of the whooping and the hollering and the cheering and the backslapping, it was easy to pretend there wasn't an issue and look the other way. It was only Panadol, right? No pain no gain, right? You've gotta play, right? What's the big deal?

But let's rewind the tape and study it again.

Saturday night in Dublin; more than a million people are watching on RTÉ as the autumn international between Ireland and New Zealand reaches its pulsating climax. "Eighty minutes are gone," Hugh Cahill announces. "There is no room for error for New Zealand." But, after 15 phases, Brodie Retallick knocks on and the stadium erupts for the 'Team of Us'.

Sexton and Furlong and Best embrace and shake hands; Peter O'Mahony is presented with 'Man of the Match' and watched by a beaming President Michael D from the stands. "Heroes all", co-commentator Donal Lenihan observes, and there's reaction and analysis from the panel in the studio before they cut to a commercial break with an ad from the sponsor.


A young woman with her arms folded fills the screen. She's wearing a rugby shirt and stares into our living room with a steely gaze.


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"Tough characters need tough pain relief."


A young man with a muddied face is clutching a rugby ball flanked by a banner '30 per cent MORE POWERFUL' and an asterisk: (When compared to standard paracetamol tablets, Panadol Extra Soluble can give up to 30 per cent more pain relieving power.)


"Panadol extra soluble up to 30 per cent more powerful."


Two young lads wearing club jerseys standing under a rugby post.


"For tough pain relief."


Panadol Sponsors Autumn Rugby on RTÉ.

You sit for a moment, unsure of what you've seen . . . something jars . . . something odd . . . but when you watch it again it's obvious:

This is a painkiller!

These are kids!

This is the medicalisation of performance - the sport's dirtiest secret - being promoted in plain sight.

It was the former French international, Laurent Benezech, who first coined the phrase. He was 32 years old and playing his rugby at Narbonne when he first started to reflect on some of the substances being abused in the game. Most of them - painkillers, corticosteroids, growth hormones - were performance-enhancing but 'doping' was a word he was mindful to avoid when he committed to a book (Rugby, Ou Sont Tes Valeurs?) on the subject.

"I was conscious not to use it because that was the trap," he says. "As soon as you mention doping, they (the governing body) say, 'We have no positive tests. There is no doping'. So the term I used instead was the medicalisation of performance. And I didn't want to get stuck in that argument because my only goal (in writing it) was the health of the players, and that has nothing to do with doping but it has a lot to do with taking drugs."

There's no doping in rugby, as every Irish international will attest, but there's a lot of drugs.

In Dark Arts, his recently published autobiography, Mike Ross tells a story about his first season at Harlequins and a shoulder injury he picked up during a game against Leicester at Welford Road. "They took me down to the medical room and put me on the laughing gas. They also gave me drugs for the weekend, and told me that my shoulder would settle down. It never did.

"By Saturday evening, I had gone through the whole bottle of tablets. I'd munched through them like a man who had not eaten in days. I'd taken a chunk of ibuprofen to try and get some rest. Tramadol was a complete waste of time . . . lasting from four hours to two hours . . . to half an hour.

"I joked afterwards with the lads that I was nearly in the car to Kingston to pick up some alternative relief, but it was only half a joke! I never experienced pain like it since."

In The Battle, his 2016 autobiography, Paul O'Connell wrote about cortisone injections, massive hits of caffeine, and of the danger of anti-inflammatory drugs: "I was always conscious that anti-inflammatories needed to be taken in moderation. I hated it whenever I had to take Difene to play. Rugby needs to have expert vigilance over legal painkilling medication, because when people's livelihoods are at stake it's human nature that some will go too far and do themselves long-term harm chasing short-term goals."

A year ago, in an interview with Rugby World, former England international Lewis Moody wondered whether he had gone too far.

"It wasn't until 2005 that I got diagnosed with colitis," he said. "I had horrific stomach cramp. There was blood left there in the toilet.

"I was taking drugs so I could play, like ibuprofen and diclofenac. It was like I was a walking medicine cabinet. I don't think I'd change much about my life, but I would probably change my lax approach to this. I remember one story. We were on a bus. It was almost like a kind of challenge to see how many 'smarties' we could take.

"I don't think you'll ever change the single-minded sportsman, but I think they could be better informed (about the risk of taking such pills). You want to play, no bother, but what about when you're 40? Make guys aware now that they have a choice but they must also take advice. Not everyone will struggle, but why take a risk?"

Tony Buckley, the former Munster and Ireland prop, is 38. In May, he gave a brilliant interview to Paul Dollery in The42. "With the game the way it is now, pain is a constant," he said. "You can't take that many hits and not be in pain. I'm still plagued. My body is destroyed. I was at a neurologist yesterday because of a herniated disc. I'm used to it all by now."

Donncha O'Callaghan has recently retired. In October 2016, he gave a memorable interview to Ger Gilroy on Off the Ball. "I think we have to be very careful within the professional bubble that we still stick to the values and the core principles of rugby and what's right," he said. "We have young Jamie Shillcock (at Worcester) - a 19-year-old incredible talent at full-back - and I see him looking around our dressing room at guys guzzling down painkillers or taking anti-inflammatories . . . I don't like a young player seeing that and thinking it's normal.

"I've been around squads (and seen) guys taking sleeping tablets because they've taken so much caffeine during the day, and you're wondering: 'Is this proper care of medicine?'. I think we need to have a look at the whole thing and where we're going and tidy up a few areas."

Are the IRFU looking? Do they care? They like to remind us about their values and zero tolerance to doping but we've no idea where they stand on the medicalisation of performance, or how many painkillers, sleeping tablets, caffeine tablets, and TUEs it took to beat the All Blacks last weekend. And what did they make of the Panadol ad? Are they happy watching painkillers being promoted through their game?

It's only Panadol, right?

No pain no gain, right?

You've gotta play, right?

What's the big deal?

But we've seen this movie before, and it does not end well.

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