The Tom May Column
Drugs in rugby? Not on my watch
Tom May
January 15, 2015
Players in the 2014 Junior World Championships sported this t-shirt © Getty Images
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A fair bit has been written about drugs in sport and especially rugby. However, much of it concerning rugby is way off the mark.

From a player's perspective, one of the standout changes within the game since I began in 1998 is the strength, size, pace and power of those playing. It's gone through the roof.

Starting out at Newcastle Falcons all those years ago, I looked across the changing room to see players like Doddie Weir - a seasoned international, a British Lion and very good player. With all due respect to Doddie he would be given one task should he appear in a professional environment now: get bigger and stronger. He simply wouldn't be able to compete on a level playing field due to his physique. Pressure to get the best from players is huge; clubs, working hard alongside their strength and conditioning teams look to all corners of the globe to find ways to create the edges required to ensure their squads are the strongest and fastest. A range of different sports are assessed and methods of training are broken down to see how they can help rugby players. Trips to Australia, New Zealand and the United States are the norm now.

Loads of players involved at Richmond, Newcastle, Toulon, Northampton and now London Welsh have used and indeed are using legitimate supplements. It is part and parcel of professional sport but not a necessity. Combined with the latest training methods, players can benefit hugely. Get your diet right and you go further, getting all of the nutrients and vitamins you need. It's therefore down to the different programmes designed for players that help them make the gains we see.

Growth isn't a reflection of supplement intake or drug use. There is such a thing as graft. I know that I can put on three to four kilogrammes pretty quickly by going back to a certain way of training should I need to. I don't. I also know that I can lose about 2.5 kilogrammes in a week if I change the way I eat. Players have a choice and an input into what they should do in the gym. Strength and conditioning teams work closely with players so they can maximise the effort they put into the gym and believe me, the work, effort and pain that goes into making a modern day professional rugby player is substantial. Just don't underestimate the effect of all that hard work.

It's easy to point the finger at drugs - too easy, especially for people that don't understand conditioning and how training can work. It's tough for people to understand the effort all players have to give to stay in the game. If you don't push yourself, you get spat out.

 
"The cost of taking drugs far outweighs the benefits of taking them. If you get caught you've got real problems. It's a whole sporting career, professional or amateur, that we are talking here, not a couple of years"
 

I read an article recently describing the dark goings on within the game of rugby, even comparing the game to cycling. It was ridiculous in my opinion. Is there really a code of silence on the same scale as cycling or potentially worse? I doubt it very much. Maybe I'm just blissfully naive. Yes, there are rumours of different players at various places having been involved in some sort of drug use. Who knows? It's no code of silence but more of a case of it being rumour.

One of the RFU's values - discipline - covers honesty. Granted, the majority of players might not even know that this is one of the game's values but it exists within every club across the nation to some extent. Honesty should be self-policed.

I would like to think during my time as a professional that I would have had my eyes sufficiently open to see what was going on around me to notice if someone was using drugs. I haven't seen anything. I've come across some pretty big lumps and not at any point have I felt that any of them were on the 'gear'.

Yes, it might be easier for players to give themselves the required boost by taking some sort of growth or steroid programme. If they don't reach the necessary levels they don't make it. So why wouldn't they take them?

The reason being is that the cost of taking drugs far outweighs the benefits of taking them. If you get caught you've got real problems. It's a whole sporting career, professional or amateur, that we are talking here, not a couple of years - unless the player is really, really young. If you are close enough to get a professional contract or make international honours the game will have moved on massively by the time you make your return. Bridges are burnt.

I met Sam Chalmers, a young Scotland U20 prospect during the Lions tour in Australia a couple of years ago. He tested positive for a banned substance in May 2013 and was banned for two years. If you listen to how it affected him and his life rugby players will think more than twice before going down that route.

Young Sam might be lucky, he might be young enough to bounce back and create himself a career but it will be tough. In his words, "I now know that hard work beats everything, there are no shortcuts in rugby. All players that have gone on to be pros have worked hard, I took the easy option".

Due to the nature and strength of the doping programme that rugby players are now subject to it is very hard to think that anyone would be taking illegal substances. No doubt someone is somewhere. If you look at the percentages, someone has to be really but to compare rugby to sports which have been torn apart by drugs scandals and numerous drug cheats is premature and disproportionately unfair.

In November, Sky News correspondent Paul Kelso reported that "more than a third of all British sports men and women currently serving bans in the UK are rugby union players". Maybe that's because the doping programme is so good, cheats don't survive in this environment. It's even less at the top end of the sport but I'm not doubting the stats. What I do have to question is this: do the doping programmes rolled out across other sports need to catch up with a sport which is so focussed on outing cheats?

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