Sunday 18 March 2018

Tony Ward: It is time to introduce drug testing for schools rugby

25 August 2017; A general view of Donnybrook Stadium Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
25 August 2017; A general view of Donnybrook Stadium Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Over the past few months the schools competitions have been under way in all four provinces and contrary to the much-pedalled myth, the schools rugby year is not all about one knockout game.

That said, there is no doubt that the main event, whether Junior or Senior, provides the opportunity for the cream of underage talent in the schools to display their wares.

It is the main reason why Irish rugby is where it is and let nobody tell you otherwise.

It continues to be the bedrock of our game and the interest is spreading exponentially.

It is not a D4 preserve although, as in all sporting competitions worldwide, certain teams still dominate.

That's not because they possess any divine right but because they put in the time and the energy as in the case of Blackrock College from the earliest days in Willow Park.

The game in the schools is not perfect and far be it for me, given my involvement at every level over so many years, to argue otherwise.

I am able to embrace change as much as anybody. It is not the game that I first played when I picked up a ball and ran for in the front field on the Rathmines Road well over a half-century ago.

It is ever changing and not always for the better, although on balance there remains a purity and innocence the adult game simply can't replicate.

I remember in my senior cycle when every Christmas we would run from Kenilworth Square up to the Hellfire Club and back again. It was a St Mary's tradition and the reward? Fr Barry or Fr Kennedy would have arranged a crate of bottled milk to be in the dressing-room when we got back.

That was the extent of our supplement taking over all the time I played underage and in all the years that followed.

I make no apologies for repeating whether at schoolboy, club (three in my case), interprovincial, international or Lions levels sharing time and changing-room space with hundreds of players I never heard the word supplement or drug mentioned.

Does that mean we in Irish rugby don't have a problem now? I honestly don't know but judging by the increasing size of young boys and despite my constant bleating to youngsters in my charge as to blood, sweat and tears being the only way I suspect there are sinister alternatives at work.

It is nigh on impossible for schools to police individual intake. Indeed, it is mighty difficult for parents even in the home.

Improving technology, specifically the internet, has made for a very different world to the innocent days of old and it needs better policing.

The fact that the IRFU does not govern schools rugby should not prevent Sport Ireland from carrying out mandatory testing on schoolboy rugby players.

As a former teacher and coach I hate the principle of invasion.

I am not suggesting school gates be broken down at a moment's notice but with parental consent in a proper testing environment agreed in advance with medical officers representing the school.

The IRFU and Sport Ireland should have the right to test in the senior cycle whatever the code.

I would like to think that every conscientious, caring parent would want to know that his or her child is safe and embracing their sport in the right way.

Why would any parent object to doing what is physically and morally right for their child? Parental support for testing is the key.

Rugby offers a potential career path and however big and strong teenagers may look they are emotionally and mentally immature.

They are vulnerable, how could it be otherwise?

School is primarily a learning environment and while testing can be an invasion of privacy it can also be part of the learning process at such an impressionable age.

Just as I wanted to be the next Pele back in the day schoolboys now, with their rugby heroes so much closer to home, want to be the next Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell. And we have many emerging talents with that potential.

The most vulnerable age is between 16 and 19 because of the structure whereby promising young players aspire to an academy contract and will therefore do almost anything to get over that which they perceive to be the biggest hurdle to a full-time professional career in the game.

I recall a quote from Dr Una May, the director of participation and ethics at Sport Ireland and for so long head of anti-doping at the Irish Sports Council.

"We are looking to educate young people and we're looking for schools and parents to buy into the process.

"We want to send out a strong message so that everyone is appraised of the risks they are taking. Our policy is one of information and guidance".

David Howman, the former director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), has welcomed the move by Drug Free Sport New Zealand (DFSNZ) to test secondary school rugby players in the top four schools finals to be held later in the year.

"A lot of the problems occur where young athletes are trying to break through into the elite nature and they're tempted so I'm really pleased at the DFSNZ initiative and the willingness of school principals to take this on."

The difference in New Zealand is that the schools final series in Palmerston North is under the auspices of New Zealand Rugby which conforms to DFSNZ rules.

Irish Independent

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