Gerry Thornley: Grobler sanction was insufficient. That’s the issue

A four- or five-year ban would both be more fitting and act as more of a deterrent

Yesterday was supposed to have been a good news day for the IRFU, and indeed the FAI and Aviva. This week was meant to have been about Munster's, and Ulster's, quest to join Leinster in the knock-out stages of the European Champions Cup. No less than the FAI, given the badly handled Martin O'Neill contract imbroglio, the IRFU, and for that matter Munster, have only themselves to blame.

Knowingly taking performance enhancing drugs, such as strength building anabolic steroids, is morally wrong. It is wilfully cheating against clean athletes. There is no ambiguity about this, and it is preposterous to go with the view that all sportsmen and sportswomen should be allowed to take whatever they want, and then let the best win.

No athlete should feel compelled to take performance enhancing substances which may have long-term detrimental effects, never mind foisting such medically enhanced sports onto the viewing supporters, who are a key stakeholder too.

Whatever about punishing an athlete with a lifetime ban for one offence, a repeat offence should come with one. As for an initial two-year ban, this is plainly an insufficient deterrent. A four- or five-year ban would both be more fitting and act as more of a deterrent.


Might a 21-year-old in the position Gerbrandt Grobler found himself in at some point in 2014 when he took the anabolic steroid drostanolone (be it a South African or anyone else, including Irish) be less inclined to do so? Undoubtedly.

Furthermore, it would make it eminently more difficult for a banned athlete to regain the performance levels and conditioning which the drugs helped achieve.

The two-year ban is not the fault of Grobler, Munster or the IRFU. He has served the time stipulated by World Rugby. Nor is it the fault of Johann van Graan, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray, who have been obliged to field questions about this issue and feel an understandable duty, and perhaps even desire, to stand by their man.

Of the two main protagonists in signing off the signing, as it were, Rassie Erasmus has returned to South Africa and the IRFU high performance director, Dave Nucifora and his family have suffered a trauma which makes the Grobler affair pale into insignificance.

That said, the Munster CEO, Garrett Fitzgerald could probably have done all three a service by addressing this affair sooner; even last Monday.

Moot point

Whether everyone in the Munster squad and academy thinks the same as their head coach, captain and scrumhalf is a moot point. We won’t know the answer to that one for some time to come. But the outcry from former Irish players is impossible to ignore. It adds to the unease over Grobler’s signing, despite knowledge of his history.

By rights, the outcry should have happened when his acquisition was announced last July. But coming in the midst of the Lions Test series, and otherwise out of season, it passed under the radar. Due to the ankle injury Grobler sustained in pre-season, there it remained. But now it is open season.

One would almost feel sorry for him. Worse offences have received less of an outcry, although he could help himself were he to go public about so many of the issues surrounding what he did, why he did it and his views on drug taking now.

In this, as well, the furore is largely of Munster’s and the IRFU’s own making. When welcoming Grobler’s signing last July, had the Union and Munster both stated they knew of his previous suspension, but were willing to give him a second chance for one year, it would at least have been more transparent, and sparked a debate long before now.

Should Munster and the IRFU have signed Grobler? Probably not, on balance. Maybe that should probably apply as a policy henceforth. It would also sit more readily with a zero tolerance approach.

But while we live in sanctimonious times, with descriptions such as ‘dope cheat’ liberally dispersed like confetti this past week, there’s actually something objectionable, even nasty, about the words ‘zero tolerance’. It allows condemnation from a height, without rational debate.

The moral high ground has become so overcrowded on this one that there’s no room for anyone else. Somebody is sure to fall over the edge. In our desire to remain whiter than the driven snow, we’d be naïve to think that there is no drug problem in sport, and in Irish sport, any less than in society generally.

In fact, sport has long since demonstrated its inability to dictate moral guidelines for society. So it is that three million Americans take steroids for largely cosmetic reasons.

It’s easy to vilify a player from overseas, and a nagging suspicion remains that were Grobler Irish he’d be more readily given a second chance. But either Grobler deserves a second chance, or he doesn’t. His nationality, and where he’s granted a second chance, shouldn’t matter.

The sanctions are insufficient. That’s the issue.