Rugby league's great drugs cover-up

After Hull's Martin Gleeson failed a drug test last year it sparked an avalanche of lies, complacency and confusion which Robin Scott-Elliot reveals for the first time

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The Independent Online

Shortly after 8.30am on a May morning last year a courier delivered a package to King's College in London. The university's laboratory is where Britain's sporting drug tests are analysed and sample 1092035, taken at a Super League match between Salford and Hull FC four days earlier, began to be processed in the usual manner.

Two weeks later at the HQ of the Rugby Football League in Leeds, Dean Hardman, the governing body's operations officer, entered the office of Emma Rosewarne and told his boss bad news. Sample 1092035, belonging to Martin Gleeson, had tested positive. Rosewarne, the RFL's operations director, feared another cocaine scandal. She was relieved when Hardman told her it was for methylhexaneamine, MHA.

The fact that Rosewarne's first emotion was relief is laid bare in more than 2,500 documents covering the biggest doping case to hit British sport. They have been handed to The Independent and cover every interview the UK anti-doping authorities conducted in the course of their investigation into the affair.

Tomorrow rugby league's Magic Weekend begins and it will feature the Hull derby, the game that a year ago was to prove pivotal to this case.

MHA is a stimulant that has been on the World Anti-doping Authority's prohibited list since 2010. It's found in supplements used for dietary reasons or as an energy boost. It was MHA in his wife's slimming tablets that caused Kolo Touré, the Manchester City defender, to fail a test.

Gleeson had joined Hull in April, the latest stop in a career that contrasted on-field success with off-field problems. He left Wigan under a cloud in 2011 amid "serious distractions in his private life" according to the club. Hull was a fresh start.

He began well, scoring a debut try in a victory over Hull KR and then on 13 May he scored twice as Hull won at Salford. Afterwards Gleeson was selected for a random drug test. Despite joining Hull, Gleeson lived in Wigan and made a daily round trip of more than 200 miles. It meant leaving at 5.30am and he was struggling with fatigue. It was Sean Long, his friend and team-mate, who innocently suggested he take a supplement, Oxyelite Pro, to give him a boost. Long told Gleeson he had checked it was OK with Ben Cooper, Hull's conditioner, and other players used it too. So Gleeson took it, as unaware as Long and the rest that Cooper had not checked properly.

It was on Friday 3 June that the RFL were informed of the test. It began a day of frantic calls that put in place the first threads of a web of lies that is still to be satisfactorily unravelled. Gleeson, Cooper and James Rule, Hull's chief executive, were banned from the sport last year, but there remain questions as to how the RFL and UK Anti-Doping dealt with the affair. At home in Wigan, Gleeson was told the news. He was close to panic, and spoke to Long and Craig Fitzgibbon, a well-respected Australian international who had also taken the pills. Under the anti-doping code athletes are responsible for anything they take.

Rule was becoming concerned with the number of players who may have taken the supplement and told the RFL's Rosewarne and her superior, Ralph Rimmer, the chief operating officer, of his fears. He suggested Sunday's derby might have to be called off because other Hull players could test positive. In an interview with Ukad's lawyer, Rosewarne said she offered to tell Ukad of Rules' concerns, but Rule told her not to. "I didn't say to [Ukad] that James thought the whole squad could be taking it because we didn't know," said Rosewarne. The RFL did know more than one player might have taken it. Hardman was told by Gleeson that "six to eight" players took it.

According to the anti-doping code, a governing body must tell Ukad immediately if it "learns of information suggesting or relating in any way to an apparent anti-doping rule violation by an athlete or athlete support personnel under its jurisdiction." The RFL says because the supplement was only prohibited in-competition it had "no requirement" to tell Ukad. If the players stopped taking it on the Friday it would be out of their system by matchday on Sunday. In the aftermath, Hull players were to admit taking it on matchdays.

That Friday, Rosewarne took more calls from Rule. The source was established as Oxyelite Pro. Rule told Rosewarne, as she testified, "it had been brought into the squad originally by Sean Long". Rimmer was also told that Long had given it to Gleeson.

The following morning Rule produced statements from Gleeson, Cooper and himself in an attempt to have Gleeson's provisional suspension lifted and allow him to play in the derby. Long was not mentioned. Rule emailed the statements to Rosewarne. The absence of any mention of Long did not appear to concern her. "I didn't think it was relevant," she said. The suspension was lifted.

The statements resulted from a meeting on Saturday morning in Rule's office, attended by Gleeson, Long, coach Richard Agar and Cooper. There are differing versions as to what happened, how long it lasted and who was there for how long. Long and Gleeson say all five were there for its 15-minute entirety. "We were told that whatever was discussed was to stay within those four walls," Long said.

The two players, according to their interviews, objected to Rule's proposed lie: that it was Gleeson who got the supplement and Cooper who made the mistake of clearing it. In the meeting, Long said they should tell the truth. Rule said no, this way was better as Gleeson would get off with a short ban and the club would not be damaged.

Agar, now coach of Wakefield, denies any knowledge of the invented story. He did know other players had taken the supplement but said he was only in the meeting for "three/four minutes." He said in his interview with Ukad he had been "naïve." Gleeson played in the derby and scored in the 17-10 defeat. Four days later, Rule, Cooper and Gleeson went to the hearing in London. It did not go according to plan. Later that night Gleeson sent Hardman a text. It read: "I'm retiring... I've had enough of taking the rap for others."

The panel was not convinced by Cooper's evidence. The judgement declared it gave rise to "a number of serious doubts". The verdict was the maximum two-year ban for Gleeson. A player, it adjudged, has a "personal duty" to comply with doping regulations.

Hull and the RFL were informed of the ban on Monday 13 June. It was kept from Gleeson while plans for an appeal were put in place – there were concerns over the player's mental health. That afternoon Rule rang Kath Hetherington, Hull's then owner. He told her Cooper had changed his story.

On 15 June, Rule called Rimmer at the RFL and told him Cooper had lied. Rule, who had persuaded Gleeson to lie, cut him loose. On 7 July he sent Gleeson a letter terminating his contract. Cooper too was sacked.

By then Gleeson had filed a new statement, saying he had got the supplement from Long and had taken it because Long had told him Cooper had checked it. Other players, Fitzgibbon and Ewan Downes, supported Long with statements that they too had taken it. Downes said he took it before a game with Castleford. Fitzgibbon admitted taking it in the dressing room before a match – both in-competition. Fitzgibbon, now coaching in Australia, was told in his interview with Ukad "for the record it is not something that Ukad is worried [sic], the fact of you taking them on game day."

Ukad spent the next few months conducting extensive interviews. There are some peculiar replies from RFL officials. Rosewarne, in discussing how Hull would pick their squad for the derby with the issue of Gleeson's suspension hanging over the player, said "until that stage it wasn't going to be my problem because I'd be in the air [flying to Australia] by then". Rimmer admitted that the RFL did nothing to look into Gleeson and Long's claims when they emerged because of the two players "credibility". Hardman was told by Gleeson "a lot of the first-team lads" took the supplement. Hardman said he had a relaxed feeling about the first case and did not expect Ukad to push hard.

On 11 October Rule was charged by Ukad with violating anti-doping rules. On the same day Hull announced he had resigned because he had "decided to move on". Rule did not contest the charge. On 28 December Ukad announced Rule and Cooper had become the first off-field personnel to be banned for a drug offence. Both were given two year bans, Cooper's halved for co-operating. Gleeson was given a three-year ban, reduced to 18 months for blowing the whistle.

The RFL told The Independent it has conducted a "full review of its procedures" and made some "operational changes" but is "completely satisfied our officers acted entirely appropriately throughout, a view shared by Ukad, whose exhaustive independent investigation and subsequent review involving two independent legal firms found that the RFL officers had no case to answer".

Fitzgibbon, in an interview with Ukad in which he expressed his horror at the thought he had taken a banned substance, said: "I knew it wasn't all above board but it was, sort of... don't ask questions you don't want to know the answers to."

The cast list...

Martin Gleeson

31-year-old former England international who has played for St Helens, Warrington, Wigan and Hull. Serving 18-month ban for doping offences.

James Rule

Former chief executive of Hull. Currently banned for two years for attempting to "tamper and cover-up" a doping violation.

Ben Cooper

Former conditioning coach at Hull. Banned for a year for trying to "tamper and cover-up" a doping violation.

Emma Rosewarne

Operations director of the RFL since 1993. Responsible for anti-doping programme at RFL since 1989.

Dean Hardman

RFL operations officer. Rosewarne's No 2, responsible for day-to-day running of anti-doping at RFL.

Ralph Rimmer

Chief operating officer of the Rugby Football League. Rosewarne's boss.

Sean Long

Former England, St Helens and Hull player and friend of Gleeson. Now assistant coach at Salford City Reds.

Richard Agar

Was Gleeson's coach at Hull.

Craig Fitzgibbon

Former Australian international and team-mate of Gleeson at Hull. Now coaching in Australia.

Ewan Dowes

Former Hull forward.