Liam Toland: New culture of body image the shape of things to come

As obsession over looks dominates it’s important we have zero tolerance in Ireland

Sitting about 30km from Bolivia in the truly majestic mountains of Iruya, Salta province, Argentina, I watched it all unfold. Now that I'm back, I really want to take the debate out of South Africa. I can't believe the arrogance of the core message that Irish rugby has finally been breached from abroad by drugs. Has this breach not happened before? Ask Carlo del Fava or his former Ulster team-mates.

And are we actually 100 per cent clean? No smoke, therefore no fire. Irish rugby must be clean. I wonder is zero tolerance total to Irish rugby? Remember there are over 150,000 registered players in Ireland: 28,000 adults (male & female) playing but a whopping 124,000 kids (underage). And yet, there are but a couple of hundred (0.13 per cent) elite rugby players. Yes, “it sent a wrong message to the academy” and although I’ve sympathy for the academy, it’s nowhere near the level of concern I have regarding the scores of kids, many of whom are vulnerable, I’ve had the privilege of coaching these past 10 years. A life ban for doping, absolutely; but is our own house in order?

Culturally, the under-12s arrived into Old Crescent with a dream – not of becoming engineers, but of playing as professionals for Munster and Ireland. This job didn't exist in my day. And at the of 12 they have not yet discovered wine, women and whinging and are so innocently open to the beauty that lies within creating and exploiting space and scoring tries.


But our culture has changed and many pillars of Irish society have eroded. The community around sport is crucial to the tapestry that many of us (older) take for granted. Hence the explosion in triathlons to fill the gap traditional support/social groups (the church, etc) have long since voided.


Those under-12s have all too soon transitioned to under-18s and are this very week engaged in the Munster Schools Cup. Hundreds of these Munster Schools kids will never become academy players and will soon simply give up the game. They will fall off the under-19 cliff into oblivion, until, at some point in their 30s, married, with kids of their own, they will seek what they didn’t have throughout their 20s – team, community sport – and will re-emerge.

But what do they do in life in the intervening years? That is my concern. I’ve already seen the transformation in the body shapes of kids playing underage rugby – many are transfixed by the body. This is a massive jump from my days under age where all we wanted to do was play games – body type was irrelevant.

The academies are extremely well run organisations with a solid ethos and culture in the pursuit of excellence whilst also developing academic, life and rugby skills. They are well run, well supervised and, realistically, relatively cushioned from the drugs culture and definitely from the institutional drugs culture we see in other jurisdictions and sports. But there are only a few score in the academies from the thousands and thousands of players around the country.

When English flying winger Chris Ashton swan dives across the line for yet another score on any given Saturday the entire underage team I coach do likewise on the Sunday. The impact is that immediate. Ditto heavy rucking, chest high tackles, back door passes, scrumhalf box kicking, outhalf kicking routines and cheating. When these kids see the body shapes of our elite athletes, many are willing to trade rugby, the game, for body, the gym. Some will do it for the dream of greater glory in Thomond Park but for most it's for the beach body as 124,000-plus underage players soon become 28,000 adults – quite a fall off.

It is now a natural conversation these kids are having: muscles are vital, body fat (low) is crucial and supplements are paramount. Down here it all appeared to kick off as the kids entered the senior schools cycle where body shape was the driving force behind every waking hour. Are schools complicit and/or in control?


What happens in the professional game flows down the system as many of our kids embrace rugby culture but, as we know, are soon to give up the sport. However, they maintain their interest in the new, or possibly nouveau, culture of body shape. That’s what I am seeing.

We know a cross section of society will produce all sorts and of those many will develop bad habits. It is arrogant to believe that the 96,000 who fall away from rugby or those who stay in the amateur club game aren’t engaged in enhancement – maybe for rugby but also, perhaps, for body image.

Regardless of motivation they are playing somewhere in Ireland so let’s forget South Africa and focus on zero tolerance for our 150,000 players: inspect, don’t expect.

It’s been a tough few days for Munster so let me share a nice story. Cathal, a colleague at work, chanced his arm with the Munster ticket office a few weeks back looking for four tickets for the Munster-Castres game this Sunday. His sales pitch was centred on his daughter, whose birthday it is this weekend. The kind lady in the ticket office asked for time. She soon rang back with great news but not the best of tickets. He didn’t care as long as they were together. When the tickets arrived the lady had written, “Happy Birthday Eimear O’Neill”. Nice touch Munster . . .

Finally, when at first you don’t succeed, cheat! But make sure your cheating is on the pitch through clever play. As for me, after some well enhanced Argentine steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner I’m expecting to break a few PBs.