Within the last 18 months, one of the Irish provinces made contact with the Irish Sports Council regarding one of their players. The player had made huge improvements and his body size had grown massively in a short space of time. The province got onto the Sports Council and suggested that they target this player for drug testing. I know this for a fact and I can back it up if anyone wants me to.
The player passed all his tests. There’s no point naming him here and in fact it would be unfair to do so because the stain of doping is so great and so hard to shift even if you’re innocent. The point isn’t the particular player. The point is that the province took it upon themselves to go to the authorities with a suspicion. I think that tells you something about how doping is regarded within Irish rugby.
I’m not naïve. I don’t think for a second that just because a player is Irish that he wouldn’t be involved in taking something. I don’t doubt either that there are professional rugby players who have taken or are taking substances to improve their performances or recover from injury or build up their bodies. In a world of professional sports and with careers and livelihoods at stake, I’d have to be stupid to stand up and say there’s no way this happens in rugby.
But none of that means Paul Kimmage is right or that Laurent Benezech is right. I think what they've been saying about rugby over the last few weeks has been unfair. The evidence to back up their claims is nowhere to be seen. Maybe they're right. But if they are, we need more to go on than the fact that players are bigger now than ever before.
Again, I’m not naive.
Anyone who’s played the game has heard whispers down the years. You’d always have your suspicions about guys you played against, fellas that came from nowhere and were giants of men. You never knew for sure. But at the same time, it was never really an issue.
You never sat in the dressing room and thought: ‘Well this is so unfair, we’re having to go out and play these guys and they’re all on drugs.’ That was never a thought that entered our heads.
But wouldn’t I be stupid to think now that none of those teams that came to Thomond Park had guys on them that were taking stuff they shouldn’t have? The difference between me and Paul Kimmage though is that I have been in rugby dressing rooms. I was a professional for 15 years. If there was ever a systematic doping culture going on at any level, I think I would know about it.
All I can do here is write about my own experiences. Remember, this is a sport that has only been professional for not even 20 years yet. We’re learning more and more about it all the time. What’s the ideal body shape, what’s the perfect body-fat percentage for your position, how much the right calorie intake should be for a certain player on a certain day.
Rugby came at this from a standing start. We hadn’t a clue in the beginning.
I remember playing for Shannon in the mid-90s and we were all mad to get bigger and stronger but we’d no science behind us. We were doing weights and eating plenty of protein to build up our muscles but it was amateur stuff.
One of the lads landed into training one time with a tub of stuff that he’d bought in a sports shop in Limerick. It was a carbohydrate drink and sure we all knew that carbohydrates were good for you when it came to sport. So we bailed into it and a load of us used it for a few weeks.
Until finally somebody read the small print on the label and found that it had ephedrine in it. That’s how clueless we were – nobody had even thought to check it properly to make sure there were no banned substances in it. We gave it up straight away and threw the rest of it in the bin. But when I think of it now, the drug testers would have had a field day!
Obviously everything is far more sophisticated these days. The sport has got its head around the optimum way of building muscle and getting players ready for the game.
It starts at a young age and players gradually build themselves up from their early teens. By the time they’re into their early twenties, they are unrecognisable from what I would have looked like at the same age. But with all the advances rugby has made in the past 20 years, wouldn’t it be weird if they didn’t?
Of course players are getting bigger and bigger every year – if they weren’t, what the hell would we be paying the strength and conditioning coaches for? But just because players are getting bigger, it doesn’t prove anything about doping. Insinuating that there’s a doping culture is hugely disrespectful to the hours in the gym a player puts in, to the dietary habits he has and the sacrifices he makes.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the years with a lot of highly motivated professionals and I’ve seen the pain thresholds they’ve gone beyond. If you’re going to put a question mark beside people who have done all that, then I think it’s unfair to be doing it without hard evidence.
Benezech says he was unwittingly and illegally administered cortisone at the
in 1995. But cortisone is a fact of life for rugby players. It is not an anabolic steroid. It is an anti-inflammatory that eases the pain of an injury and brings down the swelling and bruising.
It is totally legal to take it as long as it is declared by your team doctor and you’re more than 24 hours out from a game. That’s an IRB directive to stop players doing themselves damage by playing in a game and feeling no pain. Cortisone doesn’t build an ounce of muscle, it doesn’t contribute in any way to bodies getting bigger. It is on the banned list to save players from themselves.
Benezech is talking about 1995 – I had a cortisone shot as recently as 2009. We played Perpignan in back-to-back games and I had to get a shot into my sternum the day before the second one. I had a few of them throughout my career but nobody ever thought of them as doping. They were administered by professionals, we declared every one of them and handed the forms to the authorities.
I often hear people say such and such a player got a cortisone injection at half-time to play the second half. That’s not what happens. I know because I’d have happily taken one if it was legal at half-time in that first Perpignan game. Instead, I was given an anti-inflammatory suppository, bent over a bench while the team-talk was going on behind me. Tadhg O’Sullivan was the lucky doctor who got to take care of me that night.
That happens on occasion, believe it or not. It’s for bruising mainly, to take down bleeding and ease the pain. This was a bang on the ribs – it would be no good to you for a muscle tear or ligament damage. A suppository absorbs faster so that’s why it’s done. But it isn’t doping.
In a professional sport, you have to make sure you’re doing everything right. In the early days of drug testing, it was an irritation having to account for your movements in the off-season. But you got used to it. It’s not the most comfortable thing in the world to have to go into a toilet cubicle with a stranger and have them watch you pee into a jar. But you get used to it.
I remember Peter Bracken getting called for a drug test one time after training and he got really nervous. Not because he had anything to hide but because it was his first time having to go on demand.
He was so nervous that his hands started shaking and he got more of it on the outside of the jar and all over his hand than actually inside it. The reason we all remember it is that he was so relieved to have it over with that he finished up by shaking the tester’s hand before he went over to the sink to wash it off.
You would be nervous sometimes. You’d hear horror stories about fellas taking the wrong Lemsip or Sudafed and you’d be thinking it could happen to you. When supplements came along, there was always this danger lurking of not knowing exactly what was in them and hearing about other sportspeople getting drug bans for taking the wrong one.
But like cortisone, supplements are a fact of life in the game. I was very into them from the start, protein supplements especially. I was tall enough but I was slim and I wanted to build muscle. That’s what weight-training is – you break down muscle and use protein and carbohydrates to build them back up.
I had no problem at all with the concept of protein supplements, my only concern was where they came from and whether or not you could trust the manufacturers.
I’d sometimes worry that what it said on the side of the packet wasn’t exactly what was in them.
But as the years went by, the powers-that-be insisted on traceability and exact ingredients and they’re a totally accepted part of the sport now.
But it wasn't always like that. I remember the IRFU being against them early on. Dr Liam Hennessy came down to us in Munster one time years ago to give us a talk on general fitness and diet. He had a dietician with him and at one point he advised us that we should have lots of nuts and seeds in our diet.
And out of nowhere, the most quiet and placid man in the room, Trevor Hogan, piped up. "This is a bloody joke!"
We all looked around in shock because Trevor usually wouldn’t say boo to a goose.
“A bloody joke! Every team in Europe is taking protein supplements and you’re telling us to eat more nuts and seeds!?”
We all collapsed laughing.
There has been a massive shift since then. Every province has a contract with a nutrition company that supplies the supplements, every batch has a serial number and can be traced back to source and nobody worries about failing a test on the back of it anymore.
But again, this is not a doping culture. Everything is legal, everything is monitored. It is part and parcel of what has made players bigger.
Along with it, sports science has evolved, the age at which players started building themselves up has gotten earlier and earlier, diets have become more precise.
I thought I was a dedicated professional in my early years but when I think of it now, I used to finish gym sessions and treat myself to a bag of Tayto on the way home. We used eat chips in the canteen in UL after training.
I’m not saying there’s no doping in rugby. I’m saying it’s not systematic. I’m saying that bigger bodies don’t prove anything.
And most of all, I’m saying that it’s incredibly unfair on this generation of professionals to be suggesting things without hard evidence.