From ‘Love Island’ to ‘Geordie Shore’: protecting the image of clean rugby

Use of steroids for ‘aesthetic’ reasons should be a warning sign for anti-doping authorities

 Of the 70 violations currently published on UK Anti-Doping’s website, 25 are in rugby union, another 12 are in rugby league, and mostly all for anabolic steroids. Photograph:  Gepa pictures/Panoramic/Autissier-Robinot

Of the 70 violations currently published on UK Anti-Doping’s website, 25 are in rugby union, another 12 are in rugby league, and mostly all for anabolic steroids. Photograph: Gepa pictures/Panoramic/Autissier-Robinot

 

There were a few mentions this week of prime Argentinian beef, in rugby speak that is, the gentle irony being there is very little meat on the puma. The puma also being a voracious carnivore however the thread is still justified.

This despite the fact Argentina has recently been overtaken as the number one beef consumer in the world. According to the latest figures on beef2live.com, Uruguay now tops the list by consuming 124.2 pounds of beef per capita, Argentina a close second on 120.2 pounds – although they probably get all the finer cuts.

Back in rugby speak, there were no shortage of beef cakes among the Argentinian team training at UCD this week, even in the eyes of a devout vegetarian such as myself. There’s talk of some being slightly leaner cuts this season, especially their attacking brio of fullback Emiliano Boffelli and wings Bautista Delguy and Ramiro Moyano, who still carry 566 pounds of beef between them.

Either way there’s still the realisation that if Argentina are to stand any chance of beating Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening it’s by pounding them into submission. It’s why Joe Schmidt has beefed up his Ireland team by sending out his strongest 15, save for injuries. Spicy stuff, indeed.

Served up alongside England’s showdown with world champions New Zealand at Twickenham, plus Wales against Australia, it seems international rugby has rarely been in a better place, even for the so-called autumn series, and better still with an image and reputation that is largely intact, no easy feat by modern sporting standards. Rugby is the new citius, altius, fortius, and there’s no turning back on that now.

Our research found 56 per cent of people using Ipeds used them for aesthetic reasons, not performance

A little lost in the build-up to this weekend’s games was Tuesday’s Annual Clean Sport Forum, the UK’s largest anti-doping conference, suitably staged at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Organised by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD), and attended by anyone with a proper interest in the issue, the first item on the menu was the ever-increasing size in the number of anti-doping violations in rugby.

UKAD make it their business to publish these violations, once the cases are concluded, and of the 70 violations currently published on their website, 25 are in rugby union, another 12 are in rugby league, and mostly all for anabolic steroids. That’s over half the number of all anti-doping violations in the UK – and significantly more than athletics (five), and cycling (six), despite these sports being more regularly tested (and traditionally more at risk).

In rugby union, English players have returned the most positives (14), closely followed by Wales (nine), and then Scotland (two). What they share in common is that they’re club players, on the far fringes, at best, of international level. What most also seem to share is this desire to simply beef themselves up rather than enhance performance, not that it makes the numbers any less alarming.

In his welcoming address, UKAD chair Trevor Pearce, suggested that part of the challenge now is that young men and women are chasing “a social media inspired Love Island body, aided by the increasing availability of steroids”. Much of the testing carried out at this level is intelligence-led, the Welsh Rugby Union working closely with Public Health Wales (PHW), for what are now being termed Image and Performance Enhancing Drugs (Ipeds).

“Our research found 56 per cent of people using Ipeds used them for aesthetic reasons, not performance,” agreed Dean Acreman of PHW. “One of the findings was they [some participants] said they wanted to look like individuals from Love Island and Geordie Shore.”

Of the nine Welsh rugby union players with an anti-doping violation Maredydd Francis is among the most recent, the captain of RGC 1404, a Principality Premiership team, last month handed a four-year ban after testing positive for a cocktail of drugs, including nandrolone and testosterone, which he claimed he used to recover from an operation.

It may be a long way from Love Island or Geordie Shore to international rugby, but when all this is happening at the so-called grassroots level of the sport, and not so far from our shores, there may be a warning in there somewhere.

The problem with South African rugby also seems to start from the bottom up, rather than the other way round, with reports last month that six underage players, aged 16 to 18, tested positive for a similar cocktail of steroids during the Craven Week tournament last July, each receiving bans of between three and four years.

There is no suggestion whatsoever anything like that is happening on these shores, but there are some warning signs nonetheless – the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) last month starting a new national education campaign, “Zero Gains”, to highlight the dangers of anabolic steroid use, particularly among young men.

And for good reason: the use of anabolic steroids has increased tenfold in Ireland since 2015, the 449,411 units of ready-to-use anabolic steroids seized in Ireland last year up more than 300 per cent on the 2016 amount. A HPRA survey also found that one in five of those aged between 18 and 34 would consider taking anabolic steroids.

This is all part of what the IRFU’s zero tolerance on doping must hold out against, and their programme and education are among the most robust around. Last year, Sport Ireland carried out 145 tests in rugby, now the third highest after cycling (189) and athletics (188), and up on the 113 in 2016. They also carried out an additional 28 user-pay tests on behalf of the IRFU, more than any other Irish sport. The image and reputation remains intact, the challenge, like any good producer of beef, is in keeping it that way.

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