Wednesday 23 October 2019

Paul Kimmage: 'Reality finally intrudes on rugby's doping fairytale'

Aphiwe Dyantyi's positive test should make the sport realise that it has a major drugs problem

Aphiwe Dyantyi (ball in hand) makes a break for South Africa’s Golden Lions: ‘Three prohibited substances — two anabolic steroids and an androgen receptor modulator — were detected in his sample’. Photo: AFP/Getty
Aphiwe Dyantyi (ball in hand) makes a break for South Africa’s Golden Lions: ‘Three prohibited substances — two anabolic steroids and an androgen receptor modulator — were detected in his sample’. Photo: AFP/Getty
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

She called out, "Good morning," but received no answer; so she went to the bed and drew back the curtains. There lay her grandmother with her cap pulled far down over her face, and looking very strange.

"Oh! Grandmother," she said, "what big ears you have!"

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"The better to hear you with, my child," was the reply.

"But, grandmother, what big eyes you have!" she said.

"The better to see you with, my dear."

"But, grandmother, what large hands you have!"

"The better to hug you with."

'Little Red Riding Hood'

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The Brothers Grimm

A week ago. The final warm-up against Wales had just ended at the Aviva and for the RTÉ panel - Stephen Ferris, Eddie O'Sullivan, Brent Pope and anchorman Daire O'Brien - it was time to look to the World Cup in Japan and the prospect of a mouth-watering quarter-final with South Africa or New Zealand.

"Who do you want to play?" Pope asked.

"Well, at the moment it doesn't make much difference," O'Sullivan replied.

"No it doesn't," Pope agreed.

O'Brien smiled and nodded at Ferris: "Well, after looking at the picture you have on your phone of the South African lads stripped to the waist . . . I mean, they're unbelievable."

"They're in some nick," Ferris concurred. "But that's 10 to 15 years of hard work, dedication, day in, day out. They're a team that's full of athletes, full of power, raw power. And the way that they have performed over the last six months . . . Rassie Erasmus has got them ticking, and they really look like they're going to hit top gear come this World Cup.

"And, do you know, it's not just Ireland that should be worried," he continued. "It's the rest of the teams in the World Cup, because they have a formidable outfit."

It was quite a tribute and we watched and waited for someone to intervene; for O'Brien or O'Sullivan or Pope to curb Ferris's enthusiasm and remind viewers of some other truths about South Africa and the huge steaming turd that has been sitting on their carpet for weeks.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

* * * * *

Five years ago.

The month is March, 2013 and Laurent Bénézech, a former French international, has travelled from his home on the outskirts of Paris to watch Stade Francais play Clermont at the Stade de France. The game brims with intensity and commitment. Clermont, perhaps the best team in Europe, pulverise Stade and the home fans can have no complaints. The spectacle is brilliant.

There's a reception downstairs afterwards - drinks and petit fours - and Bénézech is taken aback when some of the players arrive. He's a big man, and has played with big men, but these guys are on a different planet. 'How do you create a human being that weighs over 120kg with no body fat?' he wonders.

He's at home a month later when Francoise Lasne, the director of the French anti-doping laboratory at Chatenay-Malabry, is called to a Senate hearing on doping in sport. Her testimony makes headlines all over France: "If we take into account all of the substances prohibited by WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency), rugby is the sport that has given us the highest percentage of positive tests."

Guy Noves
The backlash from the rugby community is extraordinary. Guy Noves, the most decorated coach in France, and Fabien Galthié, the former French captain, are not amused.

Galthié: "Rugby is a sport that demands conflicting physical qualities. It's a sport of effort that lasts 100 minutes. You have to be tough. It's not a race. It's a sport of speed, power, dexterity and communication; a sport where you have to remain clear during combat. I don't know any miracle product that would allow you to master all that."

Noves: "I have to laugh I mean . . . if rugby is the number one doping sport then we're really great in France because me, I don't know any player who has doped. Tell me, you the media, give me the name of a professional rugby player recently who has doped?"

Bénézech listened with a growing sense of despair. The sport was in denial when it was obvious, at least to him, that they were sitting on a runaway train: the players were getting bigger; the hits were getting harder; the game was getting faster; no one was asking questions.

Bénézech would write a book.

One of his first calls was to Damien Ressiot, a journalist at L'Equipe whose brilliant work had lit a fire under Lance Armstrong in 2005. Ressiot had good news and bad; the good was that he knew a lot and was prepared to help; the bad was that the 'Omerta' in rugby was worse than anything he had experienced in cycling.

And so it proved.

Rugby, Ou Sont Tes Valeurs? was published on October 31, 2014, and a month later, when it was featured on these pages, we waited, with interest, for a response from the rugby folk here.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

* * * * *

Ten months ago.

It's November 1, 2018, and The Times have commissioned a series - 'World Cup Bolters' - on five players most likely to star at the World Cup in Japan.

The first, by John Westerby, is a profile of the South African wing, Aphiwe Dyantyi: "Unlikely as it may seem, Aphiwe Dyantyi had not even played Super Rugby until eight months ago.

"Now the jet-heeled South Africa winger is embarking on his first tour of Europe as the joint-leading scorer in the Rugby Championship and as the scorer of two tries in an away victory against the All Blacks, something most international players never experience in a full career.

South Africa's head coach Rassie Erasmus. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
"But it has taken precious little time for Dyantyi's trademark try celebration to become a motif of the Springboks' thrilling resurgence under Rassie Erasmus in recent months. With six tries in nine games, he is already being called the next Bryan Habana.

"If all that seems like a remarkable rapid rise, from impressing so much in his first season with the Golden Lions to becoming a first-choice wing for the Springboks, Dyantyi's ascent is even more remarkable considering he gave up rugby when he left school, having failed to win a place in the first XV at Dale College in the Eastern Cape.

"A fly-half at the time, he was told that he was too small and, when he moved to study commerce at the University of Johannesburg, he decided to play football instead."

That is remarkable.

Three weeks later, there are more plaudits for Dyantyi at the World Rugby Awards in Monaco where he is lauded as the Breakthrough Player of the Year, but the new season is compromised by injury and he's at a South Africa training camp in July when some testers arrive from the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport.

Three prohibited substances - two anabolic steroids and an androgen receptor modulator - are detected in his sample and the news breaks on Saturday, August 24. It's a massive story - one of the rugby's most exciting players has tested positive before the World Cup - and there was sure to be a massive response.

But we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

* * * * *

Two weeks ago.

It's September 1 and Joe Molloy is reviewing the Sunday papers on Off The Ball with Kieran Cunningham and Michael Verney. It's All-Ireland football final day and the slot is dominated by coverage of the game until just before the end when Molloy picks-up on a short comment piece about Dyantyi in The Sunday Times.

"David Walsh touches on something which probably has not got the coverage it deserves," Molloy observes. "'Rugby must finally wake up to the scourge of doping'."

He takes the paper and gives some details on the case - the date of the sample; the substances revealed; Dyantyi's insistence that he would never cheat.

"But here's the point," he says, quoting Walsh and cutting to the essence of the piece: "It should be a huge scandal but judging by the relatively muted reaction, it isn't. What if one of football's best young players tested positive just before a big tournament? It would be a major scandal.

"Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks' coach, says he didn't know about Dyanti's positive test when he was selecting his World Cup squad, and put the player's omission down to injury. You may imagine Dyantyi's case to be an isolated one, but that's not the reality. Doping is something rugby needs to talk about."

Now some of the best talkers on rugby - Brian O'Driscoll, Keith Wood, Ronan O'Gara, Alan Quinlan - are regulars on Off The Ball and you wondered, listening, if this had registered with Molloy. 'Why hadn't they flagged this?'

And the following evening, when Wood was his guest on Monday Night Rugby, you waited for it to be raised.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

* * * * *

And patience, being a virtue, we sat and waited some more . . .

O'Driscoll? Nothing.

O'Gara? Nothing.

Gordan D'Arcy? Nothing.

Donal Lenihan? Nothing.

Stuart Barnes? Nothing.

Lawrence Dallaglio? Nothing.

Matt Williams? Nothing.

Liam Toland? Nothing.

Luke Fitzgerald? Nothing.

Until finally, it was Quinlan who stepped up to the plate.

"South African rugby has had a problem with doping for years, going right back to my playing days," he wrote yesterday in the Irish Independent.

It beat Little Red Riding Hood.

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