Does Stevens deserve a lengthy ban?
Graham Jenkins
January 21, 2009
England prop Matt Stevens looks on during England training at North Harbour Stadium, Auckland, New Zealand, June 11 2008
Stevens is set to be handed a lengthy ban after failing a drugs test © Getty Images

If reports are to be believed then Matt Stevens' career lies in tatters after he admitted to a major drugs problem - but does his use of a recreational substance deserve a lengthy ban?

'Stupid Stevens' declared one headline this morning following the England prop's admission to using an unnamed drug, thought to be cocaine. Others predicted the end to what has been a promising career that has perhaps recently stagnated. However, the 26-year-old Bath prop may benefit from new World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regulations as he attempts to re-build his career, reputation and life.

Under the International Rugby Board's doping regulations, the maximum ban for a first violation is two years but new rules introduced at the start of this year draw a line between performance-enhancing drugs and recreational substances which may offer hope to Stevens but enrage others.

If a player can successfully establish the use of such a specified substance was not intended to enhance sporting performance the sanction would range between a warning and a one-year ban. This ruling, and Stevens' decision to already begin treatment, will count in his favour when the Rugby Football Union and the IRB pass judgement but he will not escape with a slap on the wrist.

A key part of his rehabilitation will be the possibility of a return to the game, so he must be offered way back. There were no performance-enhancing substances involved in this case so the only person he was cheating was himself, and his remorse was there for all to see. It is up to the experts to decide whether the substance in question offered Stevens any advantage but that is evidently not the player's opinion. Had he been actively seeking an advantage then there would be reason to throw the book at him.

Some may argue that people in all walks of life take recreational drugs and don't lose their jobs for it but different rules apply here. And let us not forget that the possession of class A drugs is illegal although As a professional sportsman, Stevens' no doubt lucrative contract comes with a huge amount of responsibility as a role model. And as someone lucky enough to have pulled on his country's shirt this makes Stevens' actions even more disappointing.

Either way it should be up to his club to take the lead on the matter and understandably they feel let down. Now at least they may be able to pinpoint the reason for a slump in Stevens' form. He is clearly in breach of contract but no doubt will be able to depend on the support of the club in his latest battle.

For England in particular this is the latest in a line of damaging off-the-field headlines involving past and present. The recent drink-driving ban for England centre Mike Tindall will not see him sidelined from the game - should it? Similarly, should the disciplinary breaches on last year's tour to New Zealand (that was blighted by reports of alleged sexual assault) have resulted in bans for the players in question?

"Where an athlete can establish that the use of such a specified substance was not intended to enhance sport performance, a doping violation may result in a reduced sanction." - World Anti-Doping Agency

The common consensus is that the game as a whole does not have a widespread drugs problem, recreational or otherwise thanks largely to the demands of the game and the rigorous testing procedures. However there is some cause for concern with UK Sport figures released last year detailing a UK-leading 44 bans and four warnings issued between 2003 and 2008 for the use of performance enhancing and recreational drugs.

Since adopting the WADA Code in season 2004-5 the RFU report that there have been over 1700 in and out of competition tests on rugby players in England across all levels. In those four-and-a-half seasons there have been 14 Anti-Doping Rule Violations or "positive tests". This is an average of less than three doping violations per season.

There is a strong case to deal with recreational drug use differently from that of performance-enhancing substances but Stevens will still be hit with a lengthy ban and rightly so. Anything else would send the wrong message no matter how prevalent recreational drug use is in today's society. Let us not forget that possession of even a relatively small amount of a Class C drug could lead to jail time.

A compulsory course of treatment will also be demanded and as a result of both Stevens is not likely to be seen in an England shirt again this year but his career should not be ruined for one mistake. The cost to him will be huge, including an end to his dream of appearing for the Lions again this summer in his native South Africa. We can only hope that some positives eventually come from this experience and Stevens returns as a stronger player.

His loss will come at the gain of others who may find themselves with the same temptations. I urge them to take note.

Recreational drugs and rugby:

  • 2007 - Fiji winger Rupeni Caucaunibuca is handed a three-month ban after testing positive for marijuana during the French Top 14 season.

  • 2006 - Australia wing Wendell Sailor was banned for two years after testing positive for cocaine.

  • 2006 - Fiji winger Sireli Naqelevuki hit with a three-month ban after testing positive for marijuana during the IRB 7s event in Dubai.

  • 2005 - Fiji winger Vilimoni Delasau banned from playing for Fiji for a year after testing positive for marijuana.

  • 2003 - France prop Pieter de Villiers tests positive for cocaine and ecstasy but could not be banned because out-of-competition testing for stimulants such as cocaine was not allowed. French Rugby Federation suspended him from rugby until the end of that year's Six Nations for bringing the game into disrepute.

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