No place in rugby for anti-doping cheats says SRU medic

Scotland rugby medic Dr James Robson has stressed the importance of players taking individual responsibility in the wake of a former Marr prop being banned after testing positive for steroids.

Scotland rugby medic Dr James Robson believes  its the athletes responsibility to ensure clean, fair sport at all 
Scotland rugby medic Dr James Robson believes  its the athletes responsibility to ensure clean, fair sport at all times.

Andrew Acton has been suspended from all sport for three years and nine months after failing a test taken during one of the Ayrshire BT Premiership club’s training sessions last August.

The 22-year-old South African is only the fourth player in Scottish rugby to test positive since a link-up with UK Anti-Doping was formalised in the 2009-10 season.

Sign up to our Rugby Union newsletter

The SRU revealed that over the past three seasons over 800 tests have been carried out at all levels of the game both in and out of competition.

The union’s long-serving chief medical officer, Dr Robson, who has also been the British and Irish Lions doctor on six tours, said: “At Scottish Rugby we take a very strong line on anti-doping, our position is that of UK Anti-Doping and WADA – 100 per cent ‘me’ – it’s the athlete’s responsibility to ensure clean, fair sport at all times.

“We’ve a robust process in place for those who wish to bypass the anti-doping rules, this is an intelligence-led system which has resulted in this particular case in finding a drugs violator. We are here to provide an educational resource and to ensure the rules are adhered to.

“There is no room in rugby for anti-
doping cheats.”

The low number of positive tests in Scotland is not replicated around the rugby world, with Welsh club rugby being hit by a spate of transgressions in recent years and, just last month, four New Zealand players, including female international Zoe Berry and former Under-20 and sevens player Glen Robertson were banned for use of stimulants.

In 2008, former Scotland lock Scott MacLeod failed two doping tests, while playing in Wales for Scarlets, first for banned substance terbutaline, only to be retrospectively cleared after it was revealed to be nothing more than an administrative error regarding asthma medication.

He later failed a doping test due to unusually high testosterone levels but was later cleared when it was accepted that the rise was due to a large amount of alcohol being consumed the night before the test.

The physical nature of rugby, particularly at the extreme end of the professional game, makes the use of steroids and other banned substances an obvious short-cut to performance enhancement. Cheating is inevitable but, ahead of the last World Cup, rugby’s governing body declared its anti-doping programme at the elite level as “the envy of many other sports”.

In some cases the use of banned substances can have a non-performance element to it, such as body image. The first Scottish club rugby player to test positive since 2010 claimed he had taken a diuretic “to look good on holiday”.

Recreational drugs are another grey area in the debate, with a number of rugby players failing tests due to use of illegal substances.

These are mainly seen through a societal lens, but there have been arguments put forward that a drug like cocaine can assist 
performance through pain relief and recovery.

Scotland and Edinburgh flanker John Hardie has just returned from a three-month ban after an internal investigation into “gross misconduct” which was widely reported to be in regards to cocaine use. It is understood that the New Zealand-born player did not fail a test.

Former Scotland and Lions prop Peter Wright, now coach of Premiership club Boroughmuir, pictured below, is convinced that doping in Scottish rugby is almost non-existent.

“I think the SRU have been strong in the sense that at the top end of the game there is doping testing going on,” he said. “We [at Boroughmuir] get guys being tested at training and after games at times. It’s by no means routine but there is always that threat that you could be tested at anytime.

“It’s interesting that the guy from Marr was South African, because there is a nation where it has been culturally a thing that’s happened in the past, I’m not sure how widespread it is nowadays. I remember when I was there with Scotland for the World Cup in 1995 and the gym that we used in Pretoria next to our hotel was pretty much selling steroids over the counter.”

As well as maintaining random testing, the SRU’s “intelligence-led” approach encourages whistleblowers to come forward with any suspicions.

“I think it’s good now that there is a more targeted aspect to the process,” added Wright. “I remember in the past we would just put all our names in a hat and the two that were drawn out would be the ones who were tested. Now if they get information that something might be going on they can be more targeted.

“But I don’t think it’s a big problem in Scottish rugby. I think the education from the SRU has been decent over the years and it has been stepping up.

“There is plenty of information out there about what the guys can and can’t take. I think what the SRU have in place with the anti-doping agency is pretty robust.

“The good thing is that they’ve caught someone and that it is being advertised and put out there as a deterrent. A near four-year ban is a hefty penalty. I sometimes think it’s a shame that sometimes the young, naive boy playing club rugby gets hammered while maybe a 
pro player with an expensive lawyers behind him could get that down to six months.”