England’s professional rugby movement, rocked to its very foundations by last year’s drug-related scandals at Bath, yesterday announced new regulations that will increase out-of-competition testing for so-called “recreational substances” – cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine and ecstasy – while providing a cloak of anonymity for players found to be indulging. Positive tests will be made public only if a player is caught a second time.
Only the player, the medical director of the programme – Dr Simon Kemp, the RFU’s head of sports medicine – and the chief medical officer of the player’s club will initially be made aware of a first positive finding, and in the vast majority of cases it will stay that way. Not even the director of rugby or head coach of the player’s club will be kept in the loop. The only sanctions for a first offence will be a fixed fine – £5,000 for a senior professional, £1,000 for an academy member – and a mandatory course of treatment.
Because the phrase “out of competition” covers everything except a match day, it means a player could test positive for cocaine abuse on a Monday and turn out the following Saturday without those picking the side being any the wiser. “Medical practitioners are bound by principles of confidentiality,” explained Dr Kemp. “I’m approaching this as a medical practitioner, and we typically want to give people endless chances to address their problems. Of course, player welfare issues have to be balanced against ‘image of the game’ issues. We’re not filtering or sweetening anything here.”
The three major representative bodies in the top-flight domestic game – the Rugby Football Union, Premier Rugby Ltd and the Rugby Players’ Association – signed up to the policy after examining programmes run by other team sports, most notably Australia Rules football, and believe it to be the most effective way of dealing with the problem. Whether those more conservatively-minded Twickenhamites disgusted by the goings-on in the West Country this time last year believe guarantees of confidentiality will send out the right message is, however, a very moot point indeed.
In January 2009, the Bath and England prop Matt Stevens announced on television that he had tested positive for cocaine, tearfully admitting to an addiction. He was subsequently banned for two years under World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines. A few weeks later, three of his club-mates – Michael Lipman, Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins – were suspended after twice refusing to take drug tests. All left the club. Only one, Crockett, has so far returned to professional rugby, along the road at Bristol.
Dr Kemp was at pains to stress that the WADA testing programme would remain sovereign, but explained that under the current regime, out-of-competition testing covered only performance-enhancing drugs. “We’re filling a gap in the system,” he said. “The input from the Australian Rules people was very persuasive. In their experience, this is an approach that works.”
Meanwhile, Bath are close to agreeing a substantial investment package with new backers, some of whom are believed to be based in France. Nick Blofeld, the chief executive at the Recreation Ground, confirmed yesterday that he was “talking to people” and while he played down strong local rumours that a deal was imminent, there is a chance that the former European champions will soon secure sufficient backing to finance the next stage of their development.
By Chris Hewett