The elephants in the dressing rooms

We express awe and act as if we’re watching superhumans create and collide, but rugby’s record on drugs is mud although few in the know are willing to ask questions, writes Ewan MacKenna. 

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’. The two young fish swim on for a bit and, eventually, one looks over at the other and says, ‘What the hell is water?’”
David Foster Wallace

Laurent Benezech can recount every little detail. The day was Saturday, the date was 2 March, the year was 2013 and the former France hooker was at a drinks reception after being invited to a corporate box to watch Stade Francais host Clermont in the Top 14. He remembered how rugby had been throughout his playing days in the ’80s and ’90s with shirts either draped from or shrink wrapping an array of very real shapes and sizes. But then the teams entered and a light flicked on. “It was easy for me to spot the difference,” he says now, “and not only the physique either. But more about the face, the jaw, the forehead. And these are changes which can be linked with growth-hormone treatment.”

The stars were aligning. A month on and with the thought still swirling in Benezech’s brain like a crippling hangover, Francoise Lasne, director of the French anti-doping laboratory, was brought before government to discuss drugs and sport. “If we take into account all of the substances prohibited by WADA, rugby is the sport that has given us the highest percentage positive tests,” she noted. But rugby merely shrugged, with heroes like Fabien Galthie saying there’s no product that can help master the skills of the game and Guy Noves trotting out the line that he “didn’t know any player who doped”.

It pushed Benezech to speak out about the health risks around “medical assistance” within the sport he no longer recognised. “For many, and for years now, it’s something you just do, you take drugs because you want to make an improvement and overtake your physical limits,” he adds. “They don’t look at the risk, at how bad it actually is. And players taking these risks, it’s not necessarily doping, it can be corticoids at the beginning of the week, taking supplements out of competition, that’s not doping. But just because it’s not doping doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a massive health effect.”


This was a view from an insider, someone who knows and loves the game rather than anyone with an agenda. And that he was only saying what so many could see tells much about rugby’s attitude and platitudes. But two years on, what’s changed? Benezech says he’s been watching the World Cup “as if it were a film, like any other show or entertainment. Of course then I catch myself looking at the physiques… I try to enjoy and go along with it but I can’t help feeling concern every time I see it.”

Just last week the first ever British rugby player was given a four-year ban for steroid abuse. Daniel Spencer-Tonks, a former England under-16 union international, tested positive for stanozolol and while he was playing league at the time, he was happy to indict its sister code, saying that he’d spoken to Premiership players who mentioned it was a problem at the highest levels. This after the RFU’s chief executive Ian Ritchie had in 2014 admitted, “Whichever way you look at it I think there is recognition that there is a problem”. Meanwhile last month Nicole Sapstead, chief executive of UK Anti-Doping, said she considered rugby to be the sport “most at risk”, while it was already the dirtiest in her jurisdiction with 16 union and 12 league players on the list of 47 currently banned.

It’s the tip of a global problem though. In South Africa, the latest Institute for Drug-Free Sport report shows that of the 30 positives, 11 were from rugby compared with nine from athletics and six from cycling. There, two years ago, a study of more than 11,000 pupils across 23 predominantly rugby-playing schoolseven showed close to 10 per cent of 18-year-olds had taken steroids while 52 per cent did not consider it cheating. It led New Zealand Drug-Free Sport’s Graeme Steel to mention “the preconditions are there for doping [here] because of the rewards and availability of supplements”.

Meanwhile next door in Australia, Aurora Andruska who led the Anti-Doping Authority’s ruthless investigations into team cheating in Aussie rules and rugby league added, “When we looked at rugby union the problem areas seemed to be with guys trying to get that first contract, and then later when they were trying to hang on to it”. And the list goes on. Argentina’s 2007 team are shadowed by links to strength and conditioning trainer Alain Camborde who by 2013 was given a three-month suspended prison sentence for “importation and possession of prohibited goods and illegal practice as a pharmacist.” And by 2014 the Kenyan sevens side were found taking steroids in their supplements.


It leads to the obvious question of whether we are any different? Or perhaps more fittingly, if we’re naive enough to think we are somehow different in a game that has become ever-more reliant on power and where the average weight of an international player is more than two stones greater than when the game turned pro in 1995? When contacted the IRFU noted that, “in 2014, 228 tests were conducted, making rugby the most tested sport after athletics (229 tests), due to rugby’s participation in the ‘user-pays’ programme”. Adding to that, Dr Una May, head of Ireland’s anti-doping agency, told us, “Rugby takes the whole anti-doping side very seriously and it’s the only sport that actually pays for additional tests.” But she acknowledged “we’re playing catch up although strides have been made.”

Of course a clean slate in terms of negatives doesn’t mean a clean sport. With so many examples of drugs within rugby, how many top players have been banned? Chiliboy Ralepelle is serving two years for steroid use but that came about in 2014 when, in 2010, both he and Bjorn Basson tested positive for methylhexanamine only to be later cleared. Two years after that, Steffon Armitage tested positive for morphine but was exonerated because his medical team said he took codeine and that it naturally turns into morphine. And then-Toulon teammate Eifion Lewis-Roberts also tested positive for morphine but the case was dropped as “he had not intentionally attempted to enhance his performance”. To date Ralepelle is the only test player from a top-tier nation actually punished.

“There is going to be a temptation to dope, that will be too strong for some to ignore, in any situation where your success depends on physical characteristics from early on,” an anonymous anti-doping expert told the BBC recently. “That is what made cycling so vulnerable… Is rugby any different? The physiology is but the concept is the same.”

As is always the case with doping, it’s a top-down phenomenon and the problem with the top in rugby is the attitude of many is that rather than confront the issue, they confront the messenger. Indeed after Benezech spoke his mind, the French rugby players’ union wrote to him to say he was being sued by 134 of its members. “Obviously I was expecting a bad reaction,” he says. “But my real concern was to start something, to say from that point, because of what I say, they can never say they didn’t know. From now because of me they know. They can’t pretend a young player dying from a heart attack, they didn’t see it coming. And from now they have to admit a problem exists and they cannot deny it.


“After that though I knew it would be bad from me, I knew the risk. The message from the players suing me was really clear. ‘Old man, don’t bother, we don’t give a shit, we are enjoying the way we are training and playing hard, making money, having people looking at us as if we’re superhuman.’ So the only thing that will change the situation or make people think they are going too far is to have what happened in cycling. It has to be a police operation. That is all that will make a difference. Rugby was never as big, the money never as much so nobody wants to change it now. But it has to change.”

The point of David Foster Wallace’s tale at the beginning of this article was that the most obvious and important realities are the hardest to see and the hardest to talk about. But while many can see them, unlike Benezech, few in rugby are willing to break so much deafening and deadly silence.

Sunday Business Post
11 October, 2015


One comment

  1. Fascinating Ewan!

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