IRFU prepare way for `medical grounds' defence


IRFU officials are optimistic that the Irish international player who tested positive for banned substances after a Five Nations Championship match last season will not face a two-year ban on the grounds that he was merely taking a prescribed medication for a certified medical complaint.

However, the Union will be forwarding the information they received from the UK Sports Council, which oversees drug testing in the four Home Unions, to an independent drugs tribunal.

International Board regulations do not stipulate that such a tribunal has to be independent, but the Union established a three-man body, consisting of former chief justice Tom Finlay, Dr Brendan Buckley, an eminent figure in this field, and UCD's Dr Tony O'Neill, 12 months ago, for an eventuality such as this.

Pending the unidentified player's response - and he has been notified of the findings - the Union estimate that the tribunal will convene in a week or so, at which the player concerned can attend along with his legal adviser.

In the interim, IRFU president Noel Murphy will host a press conference on Friday following the spiralling events of the last few days since former Irish lock Neil Francis claimed an unspecified number of Irish players have been taking performance-enhancing drugs since 1988.

Following a day of frenzied behind the scenes activity, during which Murphy and other IRFU spokespersons were reluctant to comment on the matter while their legal advisers considered the information furnished to them by the sports council, the Union issued a brief statement yesterday evening.

"The Irish Rugby Football Union received information from the UK Sports Council on Tuesday evening, October 6th, 1998. Following consideration, the matter will be referred to the IRFU's Drugs Tribunal.

"A media conference will be hosted by Mr Noel Murphy, President, IRFU, in Dublin on Friday next. Confirmation of venue, time, etc, will be announced tomorrow (Thursday). In the meantime, no further statement will be made."

Beyond that, the union would not confirm or deny when the tests were conducted, although it is believed that they followed one of last season's Five Nations' matches at Lansdowne Road against Scotland or Wales.

Quite why the UK Sports Council's findings were not relayed to the IRFU until late on Tuesday remains unresolved after the relevant bodies maintained diametrically opposed views yesterday.

According to a UK Sports Council official, "yesterday's (Tuesday's) contact wasn't the first". However, the sports council maintain that the agreed procedures for drug testing, which are outlined in their own regulations, demand that "if a prohibited substance is found in the A sample, the governing body or international sports federation is notified of the finding". In this case, that would be the International Board.

After this process is completed, which would normally take two to four weeks, "then it's up to the governing body to send the report on to the relevant home union".

However, both the IB's Peter McMullen and the IRFU's press officer, John Redmond, contradicted this viewpoint, stating these procedures only came into place for this season. Prior to that, they claim, the UK Sports Council should have furnished the IRFU with their findings.

This still begs the question as to what happened to the Sports Council's initial findings. The UK-based body maintain that they notified the International Board of the test results. The IB, in turn, say they never received such notification, and McMullen pointed out that following "a thorough review of our files" their only records of tests from last season are for three matches - Wales v France, England v Ireland and England under-21 v Ireland under-21. As McMullen adds: "If all the tests were meant to be sent on to us, why do we only have three?"

The IRFU were unable to reveal how many results of drug tests from the UK Sports Council they have in their files in Lansdowne Road.

Clearly, this case highlights the need for tightening up the agreed procedures between the relevant bodies, although in this instance it seems to be more a case of a cockup than a cover-up.

According to sources in Britain, the two unnamed international players reported to have tested positive for banned substances last season were both Irish, and although this is widely disputed by Irish sources (who maintain that "we are only dealing with one case"), Murphy could neither confirm or deny whether the Union was dealing with one of two cases arising from the UK Sports Council's contact on Tuesday evening. "It's a complex situation and certain legal procedures have to be put into place."

Nonetheless, the Union's willingness to refer the matter to an independent drugs tribunal suggests they want to be seen to be transparent.

Redmond also vowed: "We'll definitely not hide behind this. We'll definitely not sweep it under the carpet. We'll be full frontal on this."