Schools quiet on use of supplements in underage rugby

The Irish Sports Council say schools are ‘a law unto themselves’

The general consensus in schools is ‘no supplements allowed’ but the temptation remains for those unlikely to experience this level of competition again. Photograph: Inpho/Morgan Treacy

The general consensus in schools is ‘no supplements allowed’ but the temptation remains for those unlikely to experience this level of competition again. Photograph: Inpho/Morgan Treacy


“Everyone has a personal gold medal. That might be just making the First XV of your high school rugby team.

“These drugs are rife – you can get them online, get them in any gym. It’s a massive problem we have with school kids in Australia, being busted with steroids. They are trying to bulk up just to get into their schools team. The distribution of performance enhancing drugs is a multi-billion dollar industry.

“The further down in sport you go the bigger it is because you have equal incentive to use it, because it works, it is readily available and you got less chance of being caught.” – Richard Ings – former head of Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (Asada)

There are two distinct strands to this debate – doping (banned substances) and supplement use. There is, however, potential for them to become intertwined.

In January 2012, indications were given that testing of schoolboy rugby players after cup games was imminent.

“The problem is governance”, conceded Dr Brendan Buckley, chairman of the Irish Sports Council’s anti-doping committee, a year later when that notion was squashed.

“The IRFU doesn’t govern schools rugby and even though they facilitate schools competitions, they don’t own them. We are working to get around that problem at the moment, and it is fundamental to the whole issue of consent.

“It’s a process of negotiation. The IRFU are not holding back on this, they are very keen.”

When contacted last Thursday, Dr Buckley confirmed that the “governance” issue remained unresolved.

“Schools are essentially a law onto themselves,” he said. “Yet they are facilitated - with pitches, referees and facilities by the union, who do have a strong anti-doping, anti-supplement policy.”

The official reasons for not testing schoolboy players is “child protection/welfare and parental consent.”

But the state body or the IRFU will not be taking on private schools – where rugby prospers – any time soon.

“Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects,” wrote Benjamin Franklin.

“The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forced by the occasion.”

Dr Una May, director of the council’s anti-doping unit, stated this week: “We have a relationship with the IRFU and not, unfortunately, with the schools.

“The stories we are hearing, we have to listen to everything, it’s not always clear evidence but you have to listen to the evidence that is out there, even if it is anecdotal. So we would have a concern about schoolboy rugby. To date we haven’t been able to establish a relationship at that level.

“As far as the IRFU are concerned we don’t have the same ability to test at that level.”

Ahead of the curve

Regarding their anti-doping policy, the IRFU were forced ahead of the curve, in comparison to the GAA, when Tom Tierney tested positive for ephedrine after the under-21 international against France in March 1998.


That case wasn’t resolved until November when Tierney was reprimanded but not suspended. He went on to get eight caps for Ireland.

That was the first case.

In the 2011/12 season Michael Carroll, the former Racing Metro backrow, tested positive for a doping offence, having taken a supplement bought over the counter, while playing for Blackrock. Carroll admitted to doping, taking a 12 month suspension before revealing that supplement use is widespread in the schools game.

“Lads from a young age aren’t just happy hitting the gym,” said Carroll. “They are taking supplements. There is pressure to be bigger, stronger and faster; to be better rugby players.”

The Irish Times sought answers from school principals, coaches (teachers) and former players who moved into both amateur and professional ranks.

“The senior cup is getting as professional as any set-up you are going to see in Europe,” said Darragh Fanning, the Leinster winger educated at St Mary’s.

“I know from Peter Smyth [coach and teacher in Blackrock school and St Mary’s RFC director of rugby] that the set-up they have in the school is second to none.

“It is nearly as professional as we are in Leinster. Blackrock have a pretty strict regime against supplement use.”

That’s the general consensus – no supplements allowed – with strength and conditioning programmes from under-13.

Nor does Joe Schmidt see a problem.

“Someone has written a book and a few other people have, probably on the back of that, decided to highlight a few things,” said Schmidt in reference to former France player Laurent Bénézech’s book, presented to an Irish audience by Paul Kimmage in The Sunday Independent.

“I would question the amount of evidence,” Schmidt added. This is valid. Concrete evidence of wrong doing is lacking.

So relax. Move along. Forget about it and go enjoy the spectacle at the Aviva stadium tonight.

Second Captains

It’s important to note, on the journey into professionalism there are several doping checkpoints. A player selected to play representative rugby at underage level can be tested after matches.


However, if you are competing against the best players in the provincial schools competitions nobody is examining your urine. Therein lies the temptation.

“Every single study that’s done finds a significant number of supplements off the shelf or the internet contained prohibited substances or substances that are not on the label,” Dr May said.

“That’s our primary concern, as an anti-doping agency – that people can get caught out by contaminated supplements that the individual didn’t know about.

“We have, just this week, agreed to reconvene a supplement sub-committee of the Irish Sports Council. ”

So a problem does exist.

The majority of teenagers playing schools rugby know they will never experience the same level of competition ever again. Aged 14 to 18, they know this. The history, the tradition. It matters. Deeply.

Cian Healy remembers telling his parents that he was turning professional.

“I was in fourth year then. It was greeted with strange faces. I was, not putting study on the back burn, but putting a lot more time into sport. It wasn’t only rugby, I was doing shot and discus and Olympic lifting, a lot of weights, a lot of power, a lot speed. Staying late at rugby training to get all that in. I started to drive it on in a big way – during free classes I was allowed go down to the gym.

“My folks, it was a pretty big thing to have their support, not be told to shut up and get back to my books. That’s important to have that sort of support, not to be fighting two battles – to get picked and against your folks.”

Maybe a domino effect is happening in the media but the New Zealand Herald had an interesting piece on Tuesday.

“The boss of Drug Free Sport New Zealand says he has concerns about supplement use undertaken by the country’s top school teams,” wrote Steve Hepburn.

“The agency had done some research on seven of the top first XVs in the country, and said the teams appeared to be opening the door to supplement use.”

Maybe the players are right; maybe it has been blown out of proportion. Or maybe they are on a totally different wavelength to the official IRFU line.

Healy charted his development from naturally powerful teenager into one of the best props in world rugby. “It’s about being wise about it,” he said.

“I took protein in second year because I was doing Olympic lifts back then, proper lifting. Yeah, I took that and that only in second year – Whey protein, a harmless thing, off one of the good brands.

“That was something that was looked on a bit strange, walking into a second year class with a protein shake, but it’s fuelling the body at the same time, same as slamming in three chicken fillets or whatever.

“I was one of the first ones in the school to be doing that.”

Officially turning professional straight after school in 2006, he weighed 98 kg.

“When I got into Leinster I got put on a thicker protein that makes you heavier. I went in and was two stone lighter than every prop so they tried to fatten me up with Serious Protein or something like that, I can’t remember the name of it.”

“Now I am up at 117kg.”

The IRFU recommends a completely different approach for teenagers playing rugby in this country to what Healy did.

“The use of protein supplements should not be recommended by schools, coaches, teachers or others involved in the training of young rugby players”, reads their website.

“The IRFU strongly advises against the use of nutritional ergogenic aids, in particular creatine, in young rugby players under 18 years of age.”


With no testing after the schools cup matches the only way to discover whether a problem exists is from a whistleblower.

“The future of anti-doping, from our perspective, is in investigation and intelligence gathering,” Dr May said.

“In the UK now a very significant number of anti-doping violations are as a result of findings through investigation and not through tests. And a significant number of them are in rugby.

“What is required is for someone to care enough to give us solid, concrete information instead of just rumours.

“What’s important as well is the whole whistle-blowing culture, which is slowly but surely beginning to take root in this country. People do provide us with information, we do encourage people to contact us and we listen to that and if it is appropriate we take action.”

Dr May did add: “Right now, I don’t have any solid, concrete evidence to say we have a problem in this country. But that’s not to say I am naive enough to think that maybe we are not missing something.

“The evidence and findings from the UK is that it is across all the ranges within the sport, including young people.”

For now the schools system remains “a law unto themselves.”

One way to change their minds would be to take away the new 4G Donnybrook pitch, the referees, the television coverage until the Sports Council are allowed check to see if a problem exists.

We asked some rugby schools for guidance on this, be it on or off the record. We asked a prominent strength and conditioning coach to explain the process of making young props bigger and stronger. We told them what we were writing. We received silence or polite refusal from all parties.

“The only way we will know there is a problem is by testing,” Dr Buckley added.

That, for now, is the bottom line.

That and governance.

What do the professionals think?


(St Mary’s College, 2004)

Supplements – more education needed or leave schoolboys to their own devices?

“I don’t believe just leave them at it. It’s become such a touchy subject so maybe there is a need for better education. Maybe kids see it as a shortcut. What we learn in Leinster is a good diet is as good as taking supplements.”

Advocate dope testing in schools?

“Is there a need for it? Personally I don’t think there is but maybe that one in a thousandth kid, it might scare him off doing it. Maybe throw in the odd random testing. But I think it is being blown out of proportion.” BRENDAN MACKEN

(Blackrock College, 2009)

Supplements – more education needed or leave schoolboys to their own devices?

“They should be educated. Some kids waste their time spending €60 on a tub of protein that goes in and straight back out. I know in Blackrock they have proper S&C coaches who give them nutritional guidelines that seem to be reaping rewards because the teams are getting bigger and bigger each year.”

Advocate dope testing in schools?

“Yeah definitely, because there probably are some kids who chance their arm a little bit to get the edge on others. It would be fair and safer if they are to test kids.”


(St Michael’s College, 2010)

Supplements – more education needed or leave schoolboys to their own devices?

“You want them off them completely but if they are going to take them they do need to be educated as there are some dodgy ones out there definitely.”

Advocate dope testing in schools?

“Maybe. I don’t think there is a need for it to be honest.”


(Belvedere, 2006)

Supplements – more education needed or leave schoolboys to their own devices?

“It’s about being wise about it . . . in second year I took whey protein, a harmless thing, off one of the good brands.”

Advocate dope testing in schools?

“I never thought there were situations like that in school. I remember people saying it to me when I was younger, because I was bigger than everyone, ‘Aw, you’re on steroids.’ It was something I just laughed it off. I think at school level it’s quite invasive but at the same time a lot of school kids are getting much more inclined to do that sort of thing so it could be something thatcould be brought in.”

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