Premiership in denial despite four players testing positive for cocaine

Gerard Meagher

Four top-flight players tested positive for cocaine last season but Premiership Rugby has denied there is a “broader problem” with use of the drug.

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The Rugby Football Union’s report has attributed the cases to players suffering “dislocation” from their clubs owing to injury or falling out of favour and said that the rise – there were three positive tests for the recreational drug the previous season – was a reflection on society. “All of the positives were associated with alcohol abuse and reflect the risk that 18- to 35-year-olds are exposed to when they go out socially,” said the RFU’s medical services director, Dr Simon Kemp.

Under the RFU’s illicit drugs programme, first-time offenders are guaranteed anonymity, fined and required to undergo psychiatric treatment. This month, the Sale prop Jake Pope became the first player to breach the programme for a second time and was named, fined and banned for six months. “With 300-plus tests, covering three to five months worth of use, if this was a broader problem and it hadn’t been a disincentive, we would see more positives,” said Premiership Rugby’s Phil Winstanley.

The report also outlines the RFU’s anti-doping programme that shows an alarming number of Premiership players went through last season without being tested. While 739 tests took place across the professional game in the 2017-18 season, fewer than 250 were carried out in the Premiership, which contains around 500 players.

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Some of those were tested while on international duty but considering the total of 739 tests includes a number of players being tested on multiple occasions, as well as those carried out in the Championship, at academy level and in sevens and women’s programmes, at least half of the Premiership’s players may not have been tested at all. The RFU’s anti-doping and illicit drugs programme manager, Stephen Watkins, said: “If a player expected one test a season that would be too predictable a programme. It’s about running something that players don’t expect.”

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Last season there were two anti-doping violations in the professional game – Wasps’s Ashley Johnson and Brandon Staples of Yorkshire Carnegie. Both offences were made public at the time of the failed tests with Johnson handed a six-month suspension for taking a banned diuretic and Staples given a four-year ban after testing positive for steroids.

Three bans were handed out as part of the RFU’s community anti-doping programme (all levels below the Championship), which helps explain why rugby union is the most sanctioned sport by UK Anti-Doping. Of the 66 bans on its current list, rugby union accounts for 23, with league second on 11 – no other sport has more than seven.