Australian rugby legend took drugs 'to cope with fame'

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The fans were the last to know, it seems. One of Australian rugby league's all-time greats, Andrew Johns, has admitted taking drugs for most of his distinguished 14-year career – and everyone knew about it, including his team-mates, his club and, possibly, the game's authorities.

Johns, who retired because of injury earlier this year, was forced to make the confession after he was arrested on his way home from a London nightclub this week with an ecstasy tablet in his pocket. When the story broke in Australia, the 33-year-old initially claimed that a stranger pushed the tablet into his pocket at the club and he forgot to dispose of it.

But on Thursday, Johns, a former Australia captain who had a spell in Britain with Warrington Wolves two years ago, admitted "playing Russian roulette" with drug testers throughout his career. He said he had simply managed to evade detection, adding: "If you play on a Friday night and don't train on Saturday and Sunday, then generally it's out [of your system] by Monday." He also told Channel Nine: "I've done the wrong thing and I'm so ashamed of it. I'll put my hand up – I was going to take the pill for sure."

Johns, who was a guest at Saturday's Challenge Cup final at Wembley, said he took recreational drugs to stave off depression and to cope with the pressure of being one of his country's highest-profile sportsmen. He claimed his family and team-mates were aware he had a drug problem. Asked whether his current club, the Newcastle Knights, also knew, he replied: "I'd say so, on occasions."

Yesterday, Neil Halpin, a sports physician who has treated Johns for drug and alcohol addiction for five years, said he had tried to warn club officials about their star player's problems.

Johns, who captained the Knights and the New South Wales side, was nearing the end of a six-week European holiday when he was caught. He spent Sunday afternoon at The Church, an infamous north London club popular with expatriate Australians. With the ecstasy tablet in his jeans pocket, he returned to his hotel to prepare for his flight home the next day. The Notting Hill Carnival was in full swing and British Transport Police were carrying out random drug searches on the London Underground. Johns was arrested at King's Cross station, locked in a cell for six hours, then released with a caution.

In Australia, questions are being asked about drug testing procedures within the country's biggest spectator sport. David Gallop, the chief executive of the National Rugby League, said Johns had been tested 17 times during his career. Mr Gallop was asked on ABC Radio yesterday if Johns was treated leniently because of his high profile. "Not necessarily," he said, "but there is no doubt some clubs were doing more drug tests than others." Johns would not have got away with his drug use under a new regime introduced this year, Mr Gallop claimed.

But the perception, at least, remains that league officials turned a blind eye. Australian journalists said last night that rumours about Johns had circulated for years but they could not report them because of the risk of a defamation suit.