Alan Hubbard

A recent headline in the Sunday Times informed us: "Rugby has soared to the top of the doping charts".

And it was not too long ago that the Daily Telegraph declared that rugby was "now the dirtiest sport in Britain".

Both these reports, and several others, referred to the fact that rugby - both codes, union and league - are now regularly reported by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) as having more failed dope tests than any other sport in the country, and that includes the favourite whipping boys athletics and cycling.

Now why should that surprise us? I have long suspected that many rugby players regularly cynically flout the rules by ingesting illegal substances to build strength and stamina or increase speed.

The last time I went to a local club rugby match I thought I had wandered into a Mr Universe bodybuilding contest by mistake, as there were so many Incredible Hulks lurking in the packs.

Their muscles were massive, and I seriously doubt whether all were obtained by push-ups or pumping iron.

Evidence of serious chemical assistance in rugby drops into my inbox virtually every week in the form of press releases from UKAD revealing yet another positive on a club player.

The last, from only a few days ago, is typical. 

Rugby is experiencing a doping problem across both of its codes ©Getty Images
Rugby is experiencing a doping problem across both of its codes ©Getty Images

"Rugby player Patrick Hillier, who plays for Cheltenham Tigers RFC, has been suspended from all sport for a period of two years following an Anti-Doping Rule Violation (ADRV)," it reads.

"Mr Hillier tested positive for the presence of the prohibited substance benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, following an in-competition test on October 28, 2017, after a Tribute Western Counties North League match against Old Richians RFC."

Mr Hillier was charged with an ADRV pursuant to Article 21.2.1 of World Rugby's anti-doping rules - "presence of a prohibited substance or its metabolites or markers in a player's sample".

Among batches of such earlier missives we learned that Yorkshire Carnegie forward Brandon Staples had been given a four year ban for returning a sample that contained three anabolic steroids, including stanazolol, the toxic tipple made infamous by Ben Johnson as a performance enhancer.

In recent years both rugby codes have thrust their way to the top of the doping league in the UK. Around half the British athletes currently serving bans are from the oval ball game.

Rugby union claims that the positive tests demonstrate the existence and effectiveness of a proper anti-doping system and that the vast majority of the positives are from club players in the lower leagues.

But is this last fact not the most alarming aspect of all, indicating that doping is growing fastest at the very grassroots of the game?

I suspect it is a tip of a very treacherous iceberg and, what's more, it is certainly nothing new.

A look at UKAD's sanction list in 2015 revealed why even then rugby was the dirtiest sport in Britain. 

Of the 47 miscreants listed on the banned list, 16 were from rugby union and 12 from rugby league. The two codes comprise 81 per cent of the bans announced that year by UKAD.

Of course some will attribute that to the efficacy of rugby's drug-testing system or large playing bases, but it is also rooted in the supplement culture in the sport.

Sir Clive Woodward has called for increased drug testing ©Getty Images
Sir Clive Woodward has called for increased drug testing ©Getty Images

Much of that is perfectly legitimate. England stars promote a host of substances, all thoroughly tested, yet they are not the only products on the internet. The question becomes how many illegitimate substances are in circulation in the grass-roots game and whether there is a similar problem at the elite level.

A young friend who plays for a junior XV of a club in the Aviva Premiership tells of hearing about locker room drugs talk among senior players and how positive tests might be avoided.

I accept that, as in other sports, most rugby players are clean as the proverbial referee's whistle, although one commentator on the game has suggested that it is not so much a question of how many rugby players take steroids, but how many don't.

The problem is even more acute because rugby is now an Olympic sport and doping is acknowledged to be endemic among most major rugby-playing nations, not least New Zealand, Australia, France and Wales.

While it is true that comparatively few big-name international players have been exposed as drugs cheats, it is also a fact that at elite level sport sophisticated masking agents and detailed medical knowledge of how to evade being caught are more easily available.

Then there are the serious concerns about anti-doping procedures in top-level English rugby, with the extent to which players are being tested in the Aviva Premiership described by some club officials as "worryingly inadequate".

There is a feeling that players risk getting away with it as there are comparatively few random tests.

In January, The Mail on Sunday spoke to a number of Premiership insiders who fear the integrity of their sport is under threat because of a lack of funding for UKAD, a lack of investment by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) in testing and a lack of focus on their top-flight club competition.

One Premiership club is said to have had UKAD testers at just one home match this season, with officials aware of only one out-of-competition visit.

UKAD's most recent figures state that of the 1,029 tests on all rugby union players between June 1, 2016 and May 31, 2017, 224 were on Premiership players.

Rugby sevens debuted at the Olympics in Rio in 2016, putting the sport under extra scrutiny ©Getty Images
Rugby sevens debuted at the Olympics in Rio in 2016, putting the sport under extra scrutiny ©Getty Images

But only 16 of those were in-competition across a 132-game season. One anti-doping expert told the newspaper that while they were not alarmed to hear that the majority of tests were conducted out of competition, they were "surprised by the imbalance".

As the former England coach Dick Best said: "If it's as little as 16 in-competition tests in 132 Premiership games it looks like a bit of a token gesture. And what worries me about that is the possibility that, as players become aware of it, they might be enticed to take more risks and do something stupid."

Yet the elite are not exactly being ignored. The most recent RFU figures highlight the fact that international players are the most-tested group of all, with 360 samples collected from them for the 2015-2016 season.

In an article in the same newspaper the former England World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward wrote: "Rugby must put itself above suspicion and one of the ways that can be achieved is by massively increasing the number of tests both in and out of competition and out of season. 

"A top cyclist will be tested between 40 and 60 times a year - more if you are a serial winner or wearer of the leader's jersey - while athletes and rowers won't be far behind.

"As rugby is now an Olympic sport, it must be prepared for its players to undergo that intense degree of scrutiny.

"If you look at rugby objectively, the sport needs strength, speed and endurance from its athletes, and that certainly fits the profile."

So obviously it is time rugby stopped burying its head in the scrum and got down to solving a problem that is accelerating one of the world's most popular team sports towards becoming even more discredited than athletics and cycling.