Rugby Union: Drug claims rejected by Hart

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JUST WHEN the All Blacks should be staring up at a World Cup mountain waiting to be climbed, they are peering into the gutter of drug abuse. John Hart, the silver fern coach, yesterday publicly rejected claims by his predecessor, Laurie Mains, that performance-enhancing substances were widely used in New Zealand a decade ago - remarks that cast a shadow blacker than the famous shirt itself over some of the greatest players of the age.

"I coached in those times and I never saw any utilisation of drugs at all," Hart said yesterday. "Laurie's comment is a dangerous one. If you say things like that, you have to back it up." Meanwhile, another member of the All Black hierarchy, the long-serving team doctor John Mayhew, professed to be "staggered" by Mains' words. "He's cast aspersions on a lot of fine All Blacks and he's indirectly criticising himself, because, if he was a coach knowingly picking players using drugs, then he was at fault."

Across the Indian Ocean in South Africa, where drug abuse was very definitely an issue during the early years of this decade, the mood was far happier. Bobby Skinstad, worshipped by Afrikaaners and English-speaking rugby supporters alike as the best loose forward on the planet, was named in a strong Springbok side for this Sunday's World Cup warm-up match with an Eastern Province XV in Port Elizabeth.

Skinstad has not played at the top level since April, when he injured a knee in a road accident. He joins another high-profile injury victim, Henry Honiball, and the experienced centre Pieter Muller in what looks suspiciously like a first-choice Springbok line-up. Intriguingly, Deon Kayser, one of four non-whites in the 30-man party, has been given the right wing berth ahead of the prolific Stefan Terblanche.

In other World Cup developments yesterday, Paul Thorburn, the tournament director, blocked Argentinian moves to recall two players to the Puma squad following behind-the-scenes ructions in Buenos Aires. Pedro Sporleder, the captain, led a revolt against the decision of the new coach, Hector Mendez, to omit two backs, Ezequil Jurado and Facundo Soler, who had initially been selected by the previous regime in August. Indeed, rumours are rife that Sporleder threatened a mass boycott of the competition.

"On a personal note, I'd be disappointed if I was one of those players included in a squad, only to then find out that I wasn't involved after all," Thorburn acknowledged. "But this is a matter for the Argentinians to resolve. The rules of the competition say that once the squad has been confirmed, changes can be made only in the event of injury." The only injury evident at present is to the collective morale of the Puma party.

Another extraordinary situation arose yesterday when the Welsh Rugby Union indicated a willingness to offer Cardiff financial support in their effort to secure the services of Jason Jones-Hughes, the "Wallaby Taff" at the centre of the so-called body-snatching row between Wales and Australia. Jones-Hughes, who will play for Wales in the World Cup, is still under contract with the New South Wales Waratahs and while he plans to play club rugby in his new country, whoever signs him is likely to face a hefty compensation bill.

"Should that arise, I think it obvious that the WRU would help out," said Lyn Davies, the union spokesman. "It is our policy to get Welsh-qualified players playing their rugby here and having gone to such lengths to get Jason qualified, I don't think we would back down now." All of which was rather disorientating, given that Cardiff and the WRU were at each other's throats for the whole of last season.