His name doesn’t actually feature among the rule violations, but the case of Munster and Ireland rugby prop James Cronin was the centre of attention in the Sport Ireland Anti-doping report for 2019, published on Tuesday. As was the sport of rugby itself.
Of the 1,303 anti-doping tests carried out across 36 sports – a 17 per cent increase on the previous year – there were seven rule violations in all, four of which are unnamed and still considered “pending”. Among them, Sport Ireland did confirm, is Cronin’s case. Following Munster’s Champions Cup draw with Racing 92 at Thomond Park last November, Cronin tested positive for prednisolone (a synthetic steroid) and prednisone (a synthetic drug similar to cortisone) which resulted in a one-month suspension.
Cronin was found to bear “no significant fault or negligence” due to a “very serious mistake by a pharmacy” that gave him a banned substance meant for another client; both Munster and the player accepted an independent judicial officer’s decision to make the 29-year-old “ineligible” between April 15th to May 16th, even if there is no rugby being played due to Covid-19.
However Sport Ireland is now considering an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne (as is the World Anti-Doping Agency and World Rugby), as is within their rights. None of the three cases from 2019 already concluded were for performance-enhancing violations, while the three other “pending” cases do not include the reported case of a GAA intercounty player, as that test was carried out earlier this year.
“We are currently reviewing it (the Cronin case),” said Sport Ireland CEO Treacy. “We’ve made no decision yet, but we are reviewing the case as we speak. There is a timeline, in that we have 21 days, which will take us to the middle of May sometime.”
Asked if the apparent leniency of the penalty was a factor, given there is no rugby being played, Treacy said: “That is the case, that’s why we’re reviewing it.”
The three cases of rule violations from 2019 which have been concluded have already been announced by Sport Ireland: they include Irish amateur wrestler Peter Newti and motor racing driver Stanislaw Ukieja, who both tested positive in-competition for cannabinoid, and have already served their three and four month bans respectively, while League of Ireland footballer Brandon Miele is still serving a two-year ban after the St Patrick’s Athletic player failed to submit a sample when required to do so last April.
None are considered performance-enhancing, in other words: one of the three “pending” cases is also for a failure to submit a test, while in the 2018 anti-doping report the only positive case was of Irish amateur boxer Evan Metcalfe, who also tested for the cannabis derivate carboxy-THC.
Asked whether these latest cannabinoid cases add to the argument for its removal from the banned list, Treacy said: “Once it’s on the banned list, we’re going to continue to test for it. It (the question) is something that comes up on a very regular basis, and we do have these cases every year, but we apply the rules and the regulation, until such a time as a substance is taken off the list.”
The 2019 report does not include the latest case of Carlow footballer Ray Walker, who has blamed anti-inflammatory medication and a lack anti-doping for his inadvertent return of a positive anti-doping test for a banned substance last February, while also accepting the resulting four-year ban.
Treacy also addressed the question of whether these adverse findings reflected the wider Irish landscape when it comes to doping, and whether the cost of the anti-doping programme – €1.94 million in 2019, slightly down on the €1.98m in 2018 – still represented a good return on the investment.
“What I say every year, when I’m asked this question, is that we always have to be vigilant, that we always have to live up to our responsibilities as an anti-doping agency, in terms of the world fight against doping. The rules are there, we apply them as best we can. We don’t think we have a huge doping culture in Ireland, but we always have to be vigilant, and we will continue to be vigilant.
“I think the year before it was only one, and if you average them out over a number of years, that’s normally the way it happens. Maybe last year was very low, but if you average it out over five years, it’s fairly consistent. There’s nothing usual, it’s just the trend.”
What is certain is that rugby is now being increasingly target-tested: there were 196 tests carried out within the IRFU in 2019, up from 113 in 2016, 145 in 2017, and 178 in 2018; only Irish cycling now tops that with 218 tests last year, while athletics, traditionally the most target-tested sport, had only 154 tests last year, actually down again from 164 in 2018.
“Well they are high-risk sports,” Treacy said of those numbers, “as we would categorise them, both internationally and domestically.”
For the second year, rugby has also topped the list of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE), whereby a player can be granted approval for a substance otherwise on the banned list: of the 44 TUE’s approved in 2019, up from 24 in 2018, nine were in rugby, more than any other sport including soccer (six) and swimming (four), with only three in athletics.
On the matter of continued testing in the face of Covid-19, Sport Ireland Director of Participation and Ethics Dr Una May said: “While we are experiencing unprecedented and uncertain times, the anti-doping system is still functioning, albeit at a significantly reduced level of activity. Notwithstanding this, Sport Ireland remains in a position to act on any intelligence received; our close relationship with the HPRA, An Garda Síochána and Customs is vitally important in this regard. Where testing needs to take place, sample collection personnel will be following the basic principles of social distancing, and the protective measures as mandated by the Government.”