This sport means an awful lot to me.
I have skin in the game, and I’ve lost plenty of blood, sweat and tears to it since I first threw a ball around in Clanwilliam 39 years ago.
Rugby has also given me plenty of opportunities in life for which I will be eternally grateful. I feel duty-bound to protect it.
When someone attacks the game, I instinctively get defensive. But the health of the sport and those who play it remain the most important things.
Last November in Monte Carlo, Ireland capped a memorable 2018 at the World Rugby Awards; Joe Schmidt picking up the Coach of the Year gong, Ireland being named Team of the Year, and Johnny Sexton winning the Player of the Year award.
The same night, in front of Princess Charlene of Monaco, a former Olympic swimmer for South Africa, Springbok wing Aphiwe Dyantyi was named World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year, seeing off the stiff shortlist competition of Jordan Larmour and New Zealand prop Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Two weeks ago, Dyantyi was formally charged with a doping offence after his ‘B’ sample from a test on July 2 had backed up the initial positive reading for multiple anabolic steroids and metabolites.
The 25-year-old is pleading his innocence and vowing to clear his name. We’ve heard this story before. A four-year ban looks inevitable.
Bryan Habana says he is shocked, and that might be because he knows Dyantyi personally. But the reality is, a South African failing a drugs test no longer causes that much of a stir.
The only real surprise is that the player in question is in the international picture. Beyond that, it’s just another name on a worryingly long list.
South African rugby has had a problem with doping for years, going right back to my playing days.
There are plenty of good people in the game there; a number of agencies are trying to clean the sport up. But on current evidence, they are fighting a losing battle.
Hendre Stassen, a 21-year-old South African second-row at Stade Francais, is also facing four years on the sidelines after a sample he gave following a Top 14 defeat to Montpellier in May was found to have an elevated level of testosterone.
Last month, a coach in a renowned Cape Town rugby school was suspended after a former student claimed the man helped him to inject an illegal substance.
The revelations in recent years from Craven Week, an annual tournament for schoolboys across South Africa, have been particularly grim.
There were six failed tests in the 2018 edition, from 122 readings, with evidence of doping in some players since the age of 14.
Some parents and coaches are believed to have been involved in the administering of the drugs – it’s absolutely disgraceful.
Last year’s Craven Week findings were higher than usual, but they were not a bolt from the blue, with a minimum of three positive tests recorded in each tournament from 2014-2017.
Think of the more high-profile doping cases in rugby’s professional era, and Johan Ackermann, Johan Goosen, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Ashley Johnson and Gerbrandt Grobler invariably crop up. There is no escaping the fact that all five men are South African.
It is having a hugely detrimental impact on the perception of South African rugby, which is grossly unfair on the players who are not cheating to get ahead. The trust from the outside is wearing ominously thin.
The reaction to the topless group picture of the Springboks last week said it all.
To the best of my knowledge, not one player in the image has tested positive for a banned substance, yet their shredded physiques – many of them, including props, looking more like bodybuilders than rugby players – were immediately questioned.
South African players have always been physical. Plenty of the men I know from those parts have naturally big frames and did things by the book. Yet each doping scandal stains the overall reputation of the game in the Republic.
Doping, of course, is not a uniquely South African issue, but the problem seems to be much greater there than in any other rugby-playing nation.
There have been numerous positive tests for club players in New Zealand, Wales and England, for instance, possibly in a desperate attempt to make a jump to the elite level.
People will argue that doping is prevalent in Ireland too, and they may be right, but we have no evidence to suggest there is a problem with illegal drug use among rugby players in this country.
As I have said many times before, I never encountered doping during all of my years in club, provincial and international dressing-rooms. That’s not to say players were not using illegal substances, but there was no systematic doping culture in Irish rugby.
I’ve debated this with the likes of Paul Kimmage before, a man I admire for his determination to tackle the use of illegal drugs in sport, but as far as I can see, and from what I hear, the South African doping culture is far removed from anywhere else.
It’s difficult to build and evolve a testing system to get ahead of the cheats; we have learned that from the scandals that have shaken cycling and athletics to their core. But in terms of the rugby conversation, there is a system in place to catch dopers, and its net is continuously being cast that bit wider.
Testing is done inside and outside of competition, there is targeted testing if a player’s performances are ringing alarm bells, and the IRFU are on board with Sport Ireland’s ‘User Pays’ testing, covering the cost for additional tests to be conducted.
In the 2018/19 season there were 322 tests for illegal drugs in Irish rugby, an increase of 32 per cent on the previous campaign, with a particular focus on U-20 players and senior men’s sides ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
In 2018, rugby was second on Sport Ireland’s drugs test list – to cycling – a reflection of the fact that it is now seen as a high-risk sport for doping, considering its physical nature and the rewards that exist for the game’s elite players.
There hasn’t yet been a high-profile doping case in Irish rugby. If that day does come, then that would truly be shocking.
In the case of South African rugby, sadly, Dyantyi is just another name.
Rugby World Cup 2019
Peter O'Mahony doesn't exactly have fond memories of Tokyo. The extent of his previous experience of the city was a brief visit for a disciplinary hearing and now, ten years on, he returns to Japan looking to leave his mark in a more memorable fashion.