Leo Cullen rejects claims that painkillers are a problem in rugby

Leinster coach made robust defence of province in wake of O’Driscoll’s comments

Brian O'Driscoll's revelations about a history of regular difene, co-codamol and diazepam use by players in Irish professional rugby has upset staff at his former club Leinster.

In response to O'Driscoll's comments, the European champions' head coach Leo Cullen made a robust defence of the province's current medical department.

“The duty of care that we the club, this province, provide for the players I think is second to none,” said Cullen ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup game in Bath. “It would really upset me if that was tarnished in any way whatsoever because I understand how much the people that care for the players actually care for them.

“That’s what we are trying to control. I can’t control what went on in the past because I was one of X amount of players over a long period of time.


“I can talk about my own experiences. I can’t talk about everyone else’s because I don’t know what their relations were with doctors etcetera.”

O’Driscoll, speaking about a reliance on prescription pain-killers for the last five years of his career (2009-14), said he had “been part of teams where the doctor would have walked down the bus on the way to games inquiring who wanted what [pills].”


Difene is the most prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory in Ireland despite being linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The use of it is widespread in rugby to get through matches, the former Ireland captain and his successor Paul O’Connell have both stated.

“That is the reality of it,” said O’Driscoll. “I wouldn’t have been the only one doing that. It was usually the older players, just to get you to balance the equilibrium, almost of feeling okay.”

On Thursday, Cullen and Leinster vice-captain Rhys Ruddock said they had not read or heard O’Driscoll’s comments. Both, however, had been informed about them.

“I was never a big fan, and even to this day, I’m not a big fan of taking medication,” said Cullen, who played all but two seasons alongside O’Driscoll from 1995 to 2014. “That’s not to say I haven’t taken an anti-inflammatory. Like, rugby as a game, it’s a physical contact sport. With that comes inflammation. What would you take to get rid of inflammation? It would be an anti-inflammatory probably.

“To say there is an image of medication being handed out wily-nilly, I think that is a very unfair reflection on the environment we have here at the moment, and that’s all I’m really concerned about – the environment we have here at the moment – I’m not interested in dragging up things from the past.”

Ruddock “echoed” his coach’s comments.

“I’ve not seen what [O’Drsicoll]said or what he spoke about,” said the 28-year-old. “I’m not personally familiar with what he was talking about.

“Any experience I’ve had in dealing with medical staff, physios, doctors, the care we get in rugby has always been top class. You get guided in the right direction. Same way you would expect to be if you go to see your GP. Whatever the route of care – seeing a surgeon, getting physio, getting an anti-inflammatory or pain killer if you got an injury – it is dealt with in that way. I don’t see an issue with it. Again, I can’t comment on what Brian said.”

‘A habit’

O’Driscoll, who revealed his use of legal drugs “almost became a habit,” also stated that “drug cabinets that might have been open once upon a time are very much shut and inaccessible.”

Cullen was asked if the use of prescribed painkillers was a problem in Irish rugby.

“No. Any time there is medication involved everyone needs to be very, very cautious. Ultimately we need to provide an environment that is very safe for the players. I think we have unbelievable medical support in this environment at the moment.”

When pressed on the issue, the 40-year-old conceded a change in how pain-killers are administered to players has occurred.

“Over the course of time you are always learning from experiences. It’s about making sure the players are as well taken care of as is possible.

“Wind the clock back further – what were guys doing in the amateur era, in terms of what they were taking meds wise, how were they looking after their bodies? You hear some of the tales about playing a game and they’d be out drinking pints. That doesn’t happen anymore.

“There is a natural evolution to everything.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent