An Aviva Premiership player can go entire season not being tested
English Rugby Football Union defend its anti-doping programme despite revelation
Doping-test figures for the 2016-17 Aviva Premiership season were published by the English RFU on Thursday. Photograph: Getty Images
Figures for the 2016-17 season, published by the governing body on Thursday, revealed that a total of 623 tests uncovered no violations within the professional game in England.
However, it has emerged that while England stars are typically required to return samples eight to 12 times each campaign across club and international duty, that figure drops to as low as zero for a Premiership player.
“Some would be tested three times a season, but some would go a season without being tested,” the RFU’s anti-doping and illicit drugs programme manager Stephen Watkins said.
“If a player did go a season without being tested, we’d flag it with UK Anti-Doping to make sure we pick those players up.”
The ongoing absence of positive tests in a sport where strength, speed, power and recovery are critical has raised eyebrows — the only violation ever recorded was the result of a contaminated supplement in the 2010-11 season.
Watkins, however, insists the present system which also includes education, is fit for purpose.
“I speak to a lot of Premiership players and the testing is a deterrent because they simply don’t know when the testers are coming in,” Watkins said.
“If a tester comes in and tests another player, then they are still seeing it. This is season on season.
“Many of our players have played 10 years in the Premiership so will have been tested many times. This is not something we are overly concerned about.
“Since the 2004-05 season until the season that this report covers, over 7,000 tests have been done and not a single professional player has failed a drugs test for performance enhancing drugs.
“There are a huge number of intelligent tests — at home, at training, in matches, blood sampling.
“We’ve used some of the most sophisticated anti-doping techniques available and we have not uncovered a single player.
“What we can say is that there is no systemic problem. But while we’ve done a high number of tests, we aren’t complacent.”
The programme run by UKAD targets players intelligently, resulted in a focus on out of competition and not matchday testing.
Priority is given to periods of the year such as pre-season when players are thought to be most likely to use performance-enhancing drugs in order to improve their conditioning and assist in recovery from injury.
The amount of testing in rugby union compares unfavourably with some other sports, but Watkins insists the comparison is inaccurate.
“An athlete or cyclist will want to peak their performance for an Olympics or Commonwealth Games, for example, whereas our players play season on season,” Watkins said.
“They don’t start the season thinking ‘I want to target peak fitness come the Premiership final”, they have to play week on week. Our strategy is rugby specific.”
One player failed a random illicit drugs hair test last season — the substance taken was cocaine — in a decrease from the previous season when two players failed.