Rugby now second on Sport Ireland’s anti-doping test list

Rugby goes ahead of athletics in number of tests and made up 16% of total in 2018

Anti-doping in sport will always be a game of cops and robbers, and Irish rugby is now second on the most wanted list. Testing on rugby players in 2018 is up almost 60 per cent from two years ago, and Sport Ireland now considers it a more high risk sport than athletics.

There is also a sort of stand-off between the statistics and the truth, and Sport Ireland's latest anti-doping report is no exception: one adverse finding out of 1,112 tests in 2018 – the case of amateur boxer Evan Metcalfe, who tested positive for the cannabis derivative carboxy-THC – is certainly open to interpretation.

Depending on exactly what you believe, it means Ireland is pretty squeaky clean when it comes to doping, or else the cops aren’t quite doing their job.

What is certain is rugby is now being specifically target-tested. There were 178 tests carried out within the IRFU in 2018, up from 113 in 2016, and 145 in 2017, and only Irish cycling now tops that with one more test (179) in 2018.


Testing in Irish athletics has dropped from 188 to 164, other sports such as GAA (139), swimming (77), boxing (61) and rowing (50) are further back down the graph. Paralympics Ireland is also high on the graph with 57 tests in 2018, more than the FAI, with 42 tests.

Sport Ireland chief executive John Treacy, busy in recent weeks addressing governance issues in the FAI, confirmed that rugby was now considered a high risk sport when it comes to doping.

“Yes, we would,” said Treacy, “and that graph will speak for itself, in terms of where we see the risks. It [rugby] is a hugely physical sport, there’s a temptation there, and I think in fairness the International Rugby Board (IRB) are vigilant when it comes to testing. And the IRFU are also at the forefront in ensuring their players and panels are tested on a regular basis, and they pay us for extra tests.”

Rugby is top of the list when it comes to Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs), whereby a player can get medical clearance to use an otherwise prohibited substance. From 58 applications in 2018, rugby had six TUEs approved; soccer was next with four; cycling, golf and shooting had two. Overall approved TUEs were down from 27 in 2017 to 24.

Now in its 19th year, the Sport Ireland anti-doping programme carried out 1,112 tests in 2018, across 28 sports, up 12 per cent on last year. Testing whereabouts failures were up from 12 last year to 17 in 2018.

Metcalfe, however, was the sole adverse finding, in February 2018, and has already served his four-month ban. It followed a sample he provided in in-competition on February 24th, after the 25-year-old Dubliner won the 56kg title at the National Elite finals.

Metcalfe argued he unknowingly ingested cannabis after being offered what he thought was a cigarette at a party in a friend’s house three days earlier. Sport Ireland accepting his evidence, handed him a four-month ban nonetheless.

Treacy also addressed the question of whether or not this sole adverse finding reflected the wider Irish landscape when it comes to doping, and whether the cost of the anti-doping programme – €1.98 million in 2018, up from €1.75m in 2017 – represented any sort of return on the investment.

“I do think we have rigorous system. I couldn’t put my hand on heart and say we won’t find five [positive] tests next year, and you might. All we can do is the best job we can, target the sports we consider high risk, high risk athletes, and that’s what we do.

“In any given year, you never know what to expect. We can never become complacent. And I think if you’re an Irish athlete there is a huge deterrent. It’s not like some other countries where no one thinks too much about it. In Ireland they really do, and you’re from a parish, a village, a town, I think there are huge consequences, people are embarrassed, it’s not something you can brush over, and that’s why we know we have huge responsibility in this space also. I think the education we’ve trumped up is paying dividend.”

Earlier this week, David Howman, former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), said testing methods are still rooted in the 1970s, and better technology is needed to catch more than "dopey dopers" – "the inadvertent dopers, or the ones who are just darned stupid".

Treacy argued that Sport Ireland was always at the cutting edge of testing: “If a new test becomes available, we in Sport Ireland are plugged into it straight away. We work with one of the best labs in the world, in Cologne, and we do spend the money on it. You still have people that sometimes walk blindly into things, and that’s why we are there as well.”

Of some note was the appearance of Kapake, a strong prescription painkiller, as the most searched product on the Sport Ireland eirpharm site, designed to check legal and non-legal medications. There were 1,102 searches for Kapake tablets in 2018 (compared to 11 in 2017), the suggestion being this is partly down to Kapake being mentioned in the public domain.

Kapake is a co-codamol, using a combination of codeine and paracetamol, and former Ireland rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll mentioned the regular use of difene and co-codamol products by rugby players in a Newstalk radio interview in December.

At the end of 2018, UK Anti-Doping listed 70 violations on their website, 25 in rugby union, another 12 in rugby league, mostly for anabolic steroids, over half the number of all anti-doping violations in the UK.

In 2016, there were five positive cases in Ireland, including Olympic boxer Michael O'Reilly and Kerry footballer Brendan O'Sullivan. The sole positive in 2017 was the case of Canadian distance runner Natasha Yaremczuk, banned for 14 months after failing an anti-doping test in the Dublin marathon in October 2017, which she claimed was the result of a food supplement.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics