Gordon D’Arcy: How does Gerbrandt Grobler's signing fit Munster's values?

Recruitment of convicted drug cheat raises questions for province

Gerbrandt Grobler: I hope Irish rugby, from the top down, didn’t knowingly sign off on a doper. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Gerbrandt Grobler: I hope Irish rugby, from the top down, didn’t knowingly sign off on a doper. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Irish rugby has its doping problem now. On one hand, writing as an ex-Ireland international and former employee of the IRFU, the decision to sign Gerbrandt Grobler does not feel right.

It’s a question of values.

We need more information on the dot-joining (presumably) from Rassie Erasmus identifying Grobler as Donnacha Ryan’s replacement – at least until Tadhg Beirne arrives – to Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald, the Players Advisory Board (PAB), David Nucifora and even IRFU chief executive Philip Browne signing off on a convicted drug cheat.

The anabolic steroid drostanolone is banned because of its physique-enhancing qualities. I gathered this from a quick Google search which also says the South African lock was suspended until October 2016.

Did the aforementioned decision makers do the same due diligence on this player? Did they all know?

I’d have more sympathy for them if he slipped through the cracks, if there was a breakdown in communication somewhere along the line.

“We thought you researched him?

No, we thought you were doing that?

Eh, he just came off a two-year ban for steroids.”

I hope this is what happened. I hope Irish rugby, from the top down, didn’t knowingly sign off on a doper. I guess they can’t tell us. The deal was inked early enough last year so everyone must hunker down and weather the storm.

It would save the IRFU on wages. Dopers come cheaper than non-dopers.

Or, someone could come clean (puns a plenty today). Explain why a doping cheat was brought into the Irish system as a project player, which means he could one day wear an Ireland jersey, and state if that’s going to be the ongoing policy. It would save the IRFU on wages. Dopers come cheaper than non-dopers.

No grey area

The decision needs to be explained. Silence from above won’t make this go away.

Convince us that Erasmus didn’t know Grobler had served a two-year ban for steroids. Granted, it’s not something you list on a CV.

There is no grey area here. The young lock admitted guilt after being pressed into action by Western Province – when expecting to be off the field recuperating from an ankle injury – and had bulked up considerably, according to reports in the South African media. He was tested after a Currie Cup game, he failed, he got banned.

Open and shut case, seemingly.

It provides a different perspective of Erasmus now he’s gone home.

Whatever about Racing 92 signing him last season, do Munster not build their entire value system on honest endeavour?

It’s what will remain unsaid in that changing room that would worry me as a former player.

It provides a different perspective of Erasmus now he’s gone home.

Some parting gift if, again presumably, it was his decision and not Fitzgerald or Nucifora to allow a player banned for steroids to join one of the most renowned clubs in rugby.

Munster history runs deep into the Irish culture. There’s even a play about how alone they stand. Much of my career circled back towards beating them. You travel through hell to beat them (still stopping considerably short of taking steroids).

But Irish rugby has its doping problem now. On the other hand, I remember the wise words of ex-Munster and Ireland coach Declan Kidney (a Deccie-ism if you will): Always remember the act of pointing the finger forces a person to point three fingers at themselves.

Legal supplements

Still, this smacks of hypocrisy. I’ll tell you why I believe that. For as long as I can remember, the IRFU have resisted even a hint of performance enhancing drugs creeping into the Irish rugby.

Yes, legal supplements were rife in the professional game since the late 1990s but the governing body and its professional wing never advocated their usage.

Long after that horse bolted, the union remained cautious about openly embracing the supplement culture. Whereas day one on the Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005 I was handed my supplements regime. I was surrounded by English World Cup winners so I thought, “Ok, so this is the cutting edge.”

Everything, I still believe, was tested by medical experts so I swallowed my pills, guzzled protein shakes and went to work.

Leinster embraced the supplement era like any elite sporting club but our endorsed brands – see the language, “nutrition supplier” – had to be whiter than white. The majority of supplements we took were carbohydrate, protein and some creatine-based.

I see people are trying to change the narrative by accusing the media of sitting on this until now. It was reported in September but nobody was interested. It’s an issue now because Grobler is wearing the jersey.

I don’t see an easy solution to this. Grobler has a one year contract and looks a fine specimen. Munster coach Johann van Graan is entitled to pick him against Castres on Sunday.

This is not about Gerbrandt Grobler, it’s about the integrity of our sport.

“He has unbelievable talent” was van Graan’s recent choice of words to describe a player he previously coached as a schoolboy.

Throughout my career I’d get cranky whenever the doping in Irish rugby question was raised because I believed it didn’t exist. But it is here now. This is not about Gerbrandt Grobler, it’s about the integrity of our sport.

Systematic doping in Irish rugby would very quickly become obvious.

Give or take, there is 160 professional players on the provincial payroll and another 60 or so in the academies. A five percent leap is physique or speed during preseason is instantly noticed.

Organised crime structure

Also, a sustained doping regime is very expensive. It would need to come from the top down simply because an individual would struggle to cover the costs on his own. I hear of multi-millionaire NFL players paying chemists to change the pattern of steroids so they are undetectable. We read of human growth hormone being sent in the post.

This amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars spend annually by each individual cheat and an organised crime structure ensuring supply meets demand.

I don’t think rugby in Ireland is sophisticated enough to have an unseen doping problem. So why on earth would they create a problem?

I have thought about the psychological line an elite athlete must cross, like Lance Armstrong, in order to dope, and be able to sleep at night because the ends – winning – justify any means.

The mindset is: I am not doing anything wrong here. This is necessary.

I could never get my head around the ability to compartmentalise cheating. I used to lift weights with Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll. Both of them found it hilarious to watch me hit my ceiling. Same problem every other day for three years: the fourth dumb bell lift on the fifth rep (my eternal nemesis). I’d go up and come back down – at which stage the other two were in fits of laughter knowing my arm wasn’t going back up again.

If I was ever going to sample steroids it wouldn’t be to win another Grand Slam or European medal, it would be to lift that fecking dumb bell.

Maybe that’s the moment of change. Incremental improvement. It narrows the focus to putting on three kilos of muscle so I get to the next contract extension, so I keep the 22-year-old Robbie Henshaw at bay for one more season. So I keep the dream alive.

Did I ever think I was playing against dopers? At the time, no. Now? There has to have been some.

I went another way to doping as the game became increasingly packed full of humongous men. Worked on my passing. Perfected rucking, chop tackling.

Anything but the easy option.

Did I ever think I was playing against dopers? At the time, no. Now?

There has to have been some. Systematic doping? Too expensive, too difficult to escape undetected. Ad hoc doping by an injured kid desperate for a new contract? The proof exists in Grobler (this gives a player a foundation to build upon for the rest of his career).

Now I accept there must be more like him.

For me, on this issue, I can’t get past the Munster reared lock who does not have a full contract today because of this decision.

Van Graan is correct – everybody deserves a second chance – but the players are forced to toe this party line. Otherwise the entire value system could be derailed. There is enough problems keeping a group of 50-odd rugby players moving in the same direction.

The likes of Chris Cloete are a foreign solution to a long term problem because Munster need to remain a European force. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The likes of Chris Cloete are a foreign solution to a long term problem because Munster need to remain a European force. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Munster leaders will circle the wagons but an unneeded precedent has been set by signing Grobler.

Irish rugby has its doping problem now. And they imported it. Whoever decided that was a wise move needs their head examined (if they knew).

That’s not all.

South African rugby sees Munster in the same light as French clubs like Montpellier setting up a scholarship programme at Grey College in Bloemfontein. This month Munster announced the acquisition of two 18 year olds, Keynon Knox and Matt Moore, straight from South African schools into their Academy. At 118 kilos, Knox is almost the size of John Hayes in his prime.

Lost to Irish rugby

I want to believe this is a stop gap, until slacked schools/youths systems are improved, but what message does this send to the next Donnacha Ryan – a skinny teenage lock on the periphery who won’t be ready for the professional game until he’s 21 or 22? Or the next Bull Hayes, a future prop currently playing lock or backrow who has yet to be shifted into the frontrow?

These boys might return to their first love – be it hurling or a career in farming – and be lost to Irish rugby.

Regardless of how they turn out, they should not have been introduced into the system at this age. We talk out of the side of our mouth about the French doing this, now we are the same.

Clearly, Munster stocks are not plentiful enough to be replenished from within. Three South African born forwards – CJ Stander, Chris Cloete and Jean Kleyn - and one Kiwi – Rhys Marshall – made up their pack last Sunday in Paris.

A foreign solution to a long term problem because Munster need to remain a European force.

The everyone-else-is-doing-it reasoning is how a doping culture festers. It can justify anything and everything.

I’d rather be writing a column about Munster’s strategic plan to develop underage talent rather than imports into their academy. Here I am in my ivory tower. Professionalism turned the Leinster schools system into a phenomenal talent pool that constantly produces gems. Munster flanker Conor Oliver and Ulster number eight Nick Timoney are two of many examples how that system feeds the rest.

Connacht have clearly done excellent work on their grassroots.

Granted, they also benefit from Leinster winger Cian Kelleher and others.

Munster recruit South Africans because these are the rules everyone else plays by. France are doing it with Georgian props, Fijian wingers and all sorts of plundering of potential Springboks. Pacific Island kids go on high school scholarships to New Zealand and Australia to become All Blacks and Wallabies. Entire families are liberated from poverty as a result.

But here’s the danger: the everyone-else-is-doing-it reasoning is how a doping culture festers. It can justify anything and everything.

The IRFU mandate is to protect the game in perpetuity.

Again, a question of values.

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