Top rugby figures deny that doping is widespread

SCOTTISH rugby players and coaches have dismissed claims by a teenage player that doping is widespread in the amateur game but called on the individual and anyone else with suspicions to help them uncover evidence of cheating where any may exist.

Gregor Townsend: Shocked by the news. Picture: SNS

Speaking to BBC Scotland yesterday, the 19-year-old, said to be a player for one of the ten National League clubs, claimed that players throughout the club game were taking “some sort of substances”. It comes in the wake of the two-year suspension handed out to Melrose teenager Sam Chalmers, who said he tried anabolic steroids in an effort to cope with demands to make himself bigger and stronger.

Last night, the young Scottish player, whose identity was not revealed by the BBC, stated: “I would say roughly two people per team are on some sort of substances, [which] could be fat-stripping supplement or a bulking supplement or something like that, from the Premiership to the Championship.

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“When people go off-season and they bulk up. . . you think ‘that’s not right’. You hear people chatting that they’re on something or there’s other signs as well. They have more spots and stuff like that; there’s tell-tale signs when you’re taking substances like that. You kind of bulk up quickly.

“It’s almost like a quick fix because they want to be like a professional so they want to get there as quick as they can. They don’t really care what they do to their health. They just want to be there to be the best they possibly can. You see guys who are getting picked, and they’re not the most skilful players, but they’re huge and you think, ‘that’s the only reason you’re picking them, because they’re big’.”

BBC Scotland interpreted his references to “substances” as illegal drugs and steroids. Many professional sportspeople now take supplements containing legal substances, such as creatine and whey protein, designed to boost nutrients in the body and muscle. Many of these products add carbohydrates and protein to their diets, with research showing that athletes lose significant amounts of protein, salt and other naturally-occurring substances in high-intensity training.

Leading club coaches John Dalziel and Peter Laverie have wide experience in the Scottish club game and they insisted that steroid use was not common.

Dalziel is now head coach at Melrose and assistant coach of Scotland under-20s, and he knew about Chalmers’ positive test before most as it occurred while he was with the Scotland Under-20 squad. He insisted that it sent shockwaves through the under-20s squad and Melrose. “There wasn’t a reaction like ‘oh he’s been caught’, but a real shock that any player they knew might have tried steroids,” he said.

“These players are now given regular education from their clubs and the SRU, which includes nutritionists telling them about what they need to be fit, strong, to replace lost protein and vitamins from training, and to put on weight if they need to while being healthy, and we have professional medics that explain the dangers of doping.

“I played for 16 years at club and pro level, and these youngsters are so much more professional and clued-up than I was when I started. I know the pressures that exist in the game to be bigger and stronger, but I can honestly say that I never came across any suggestion of a rugby player using steroids until Sam’s case.”

Laverie is the head coach at reigning Scottish league and cup champions Ayr, and coaches some of Scotland’s most talented and ambitious teenagers in age-grade teams. He revealed that the UK Anti-Doping testers were at Millbrae only a few weeks ago.

“They tested four of our first XV boys, and interestingly they chose four of our youngest players,” he said. “I don’t know if it was coincidence that they turned up just after the Sam Chalmers story broke and took young lads, or not, but there was no surprise when they arrived because we expect them to turn up at some point.

“We will see testers once or twice a season at least, and so the general feeling is that anyone taking anything they shouldn’t will be caught.

“Any kid in Scotland who gets involved at age-grade level, even in the large initial squads, receives the full SRU education programme on drug abuse, nutrition and many other parts of the game, and it is repeated every year, when each squad comes together. Club players now regularly come and ask about inhalers or medicine, and are used to having things checked.

“It is part of sport now. And I meet with all Premiership coaches regularly and none would condone players taking illegal substances. It’s just not worth it. I also have experience of working with people suffering from drug and alcohol abuse and you get to know the signs of people taking stuff, and the underground system that operates in that culture, and I have to say I’ve never seen any signs of that in club rugby.

“I would like to know where this claim comes from. Maybe the lad has heard something but I cannot understand how he can say at least two players at every club is taking something. Where is the evidence of that?”

Clearly, Chalmers’ recent case shows that rugby is not immune. The question is whether it is more common than Scottish rugby thinks. Gregor Townsend, who played amateur rugby with Gala before turning professional and playing at the top level in Australia, England, France, South Africa and his home country, is now head coach at Glasgow Warriors.

He said: “I’d be extremely surprised. Scottish rugby prides itself on being very thorough in testing for drugs and making sure that if there is anyone out there [taking them] there is no way of getting round the testers. I was shocked when I heard about Sam. I have been involved in a lot of rugby and this is a total surprise to me.”

The SRU reiterated its zero-tolerance stance against drug-taking in the sport, pointing to its record of more than 800 tests in the past four years showing only two adverse findings – one club player having taken a slimming product and Chalmers’ case – but encouraged the player who made the claims and any others with evidence to contact them in strict confidence and allow it to be fully investigated.