Rugby has become a sport obsessed with size, strength and speed; an unhealthy fixation of athleticism that has seen the game become rife with doping. By the end of the 2018 there were 70 individuals banned by the UK anti-doping agency (UKAD) for consuming performance enhancing substances, 24 of whom were rugby union players.
In spite of lower participation rates, and more infrequent testing than other sports, rugby union has the most banned players out of any sport played in the UK. The second is rugby league. At even the most elite level, not enough is being done to keep rugby clean.
This is the shocking reality. In the 2017/18 season only 16 drug tests took place in the Premiership Rugby season, that is 116 games out of a 132 game season where nobody was drug tested.
One source told The Times, “If you look at the side effects of growth hormones [hair growth, more prominent brow and chin, low body fat, high muscle mass] you’ve basically got many Premiership backrows looking at you.”
Another anonymous figure, said to be a former international coach once involved with England, has spoken to the Mail on Sunday about the “institutionalised drug taking,” that compelled him to leave the sport.
Amongst the few elite level whistle-blowers willing to go on record was Laurent Benezech, a former France and Harlequins front row, who compared rugby to cycling prior to the Festina affair. Benezech has previously queried, “how you create a human being who weighs more than 120kg with no body fat only muscles?”
Likewise, former England youth player Daniel Spencer-Tonks has suggested doping is “hugely widespread,” as a result of increasing pressure to be “bigger, faster and stronger.” The case of Tonks, and others like him in the lower echelons of rugby, illustrates that doping stretches down throughout leagues and age groups.
One player from National Two North, Jamie Broadley, says he has seen no evidence of testing at that level, whilst the head of UKAD, Nicole Sapstead told the BBC, “the rise in the number of young people turning to steroids continues to be a worrying trend.”
An RFU and Leeds Beckett University report found that 95% of schoolboys had used some sort of sports supplement (to clarify, this does not mean banned substance), ranging from caffeinated preworkout powders to weight loss pills and protein shakes.
Of course, the link between sports supplements and doping is not direct, but there are parallels that must be recognised. They form part of the same trend towards size and competitive edge through physicality.
Moreover, they can be researched, purchased and delivered through the internet with ease. On online forums such as ‘UK Bodybuilding Community’ anybody can find pages focused on topics such as ‘using steroids for rugby,’ for advice.
Fundamentally, steroid abuse can only be a symptom of a sporting culture geared towards size, aggression and a cutthroat ‘win at all costs’ mentality.
Written by Joe Ronan