By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Drugs in track and field, drugs in cycling, drugs in swimming, but never in Irish rugby. Never, that is, until last week when former international Neil Francis blew the whistle on a sport that didn’t want to see or hear any anabolic evil.
Francis’s startling revelations in the Sunday Tribune that some members of the Ireland squad had been taking performance enhancing drugs since 1988 were initially met with a mixture of outrage and indignation by the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) which went on the offensive and challenged Francis to name names.
But now Francis has continued his exposure of a previously hidden problem by writing of three players who he is sure have taken anabolic steroids. A medical consultant has also dramatically revealed that he has treated as many as 10 Irish players for the side-effects of steroid abuse, one of whom "may not reach is 38th birthday."
While the unnamed consultant has agreed to share his information in general terms with the IRFU, he is keeping the names of his patients confidential. He claims to have treated the players for various ailments such as peptic ulcers, severe penile dysfunction, blood clots and liver and heart conditions.
Although the IRFU is now making conciliatory noises about cleaning up its sport, Irish rugby’s governing body has once again emerged as a secretive, evasive and amateurish organization in the wake of Francis’s highly important statements.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Scandalously, at the very moment the IRFU was challenging the former international’s claims, it already had two positive tests on its books. One player had been exonerated, having taken prescribed medication for a medical condition, but the second player’s case was in the process of being investigated.
None of this information had been available until it was dramatically revealed that a third Irish player had failed a doping control during one of last season’s Five Nations matches, most likely after the Ireland v Wales game at Lansdowne Road.
Looking over its records, the United Kingdom Sports Council, which administers drug testing in the Five Nations championship, had found that no action had been taken against the Irish international player who had tested positive last season.
So, two days after Francis’s initial claims had been effectively rubbished by rugby officials and many former players alike, the UK Sports Council contacted the IRFU and asked what was being done about the positive Five Nations test on one of its players.
However, the IRFU genuinely knew nothing of the player’s test. The UK Sports Council then had to admit that it had posted the results of the test to the International Rugby Board (IRB) offices in Dublin and not to the IRFU. But the IRB, which is the world governing body for the sport, was adamant it had received nothing from the UK Sports Council.
By now, the media had got wind of this Irish international player who had tested positive and, after what was a cock-up, rather than a cover-up, by the UK Sports Council, the IRFU had been flushed out into the open.
With the rebuttals of Neil Francis’s claims still hot in the air, a sheepish IRFU was forced to reveal that yes, it had a positive test from the Five Nations and by the way, there were also two previous positive tests as well.
SO, who were the players? And after what matches had they been tested? The IRFU scheduled a media conference which at times descended into farce as the union’s beleaguered president, Noel Murphy, and its secretary, pleaded confidentiality about more or less everything to do with the positive tests.
The IRFU insisted that the player who was exonerated last season wouldn’t be named and it also insisted that because the two other cases had gone before an Independent Drugs Tribunal, they couldn’t be discussed either.
Even though other sports, for the sake of transparency, name athletes who fail doping controls and then either punish or exonerate them, the IRFU has decided to plead the Fifth.
But what has emerged is an appalling catalog of mis-management. For example, the IRFU does not have a list of its players who have been tested since doping controls were introduced into rugby in the 1980s. There is no out-of-competition testing, no testing at club level and several of the current international squad have never been tested.
The IRFU was asked last week if it had the results of tests carried out this season on its players during European Cup games. No, it hadn’t. Equally, last season, the UK Sports Council didn’t know who in Ireland it should have been supplying with doping control results.
Rugby has been fully professional on the pitch since 1995. Off the pitch in Ireland, the amateurs are clearly still in charge.
Meanwhile, it was a good weekend for Ireland’s provinces in European rugby competition. Leinster kept their hopes alive of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the European Cup with a 9-3 win over French side Begles-Bordeaux at Donnybrook.
Ulster hammered Ebbw Vale 61-28 in Wales and even though Munster were well beaten by Perpignan 41-24 away from home, they are still in with a good chance of making the knock-out stages following two earlier wins.
Connacht are also on course in the European Shield. They followed up a midweek 29-28 victory over Perigueux in Galway with another narrow 21-20 win against Rovigo in Italy. Connacht now have a 100 per cent record from their three matches.