Three Bath players, Michael Lipman, Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins, were last night suspended for nine months each after being found guilty of failing to submit to two drugs tests.
The bans followed a four-day disciplinary hearing in London when the trio appeared before a Rugby Football Union's disciplinary panel chaired by Judge Jeff Blackett.
The three players were ruled to have failed on two separate occasions to provide drug tests after an end-of-season celebration in London because "they believed there was a risk of positive results".
The suspension – reduced from 15 months because of the players' good character and the panel's perception of the legal advice which they took – has been back-dated to start on 1 June, the day all three terminated their contracts with Bath.
The judgement concluded: "The RFU disciplinary panel today takes no pleasure in imposing its sanction as the players involved are decent young men. There are good policy reasons why those who fail to take tests and those who give positive tests should receive the same sanction. There is also a need for a strong deterrent in this sanction.
Although the three players have terminated their Bath contracts, the result of the hearing, which began last Wednesday, still leaves the West Country club's reputation badly tarnished. Early last month a fourth player, former Australian international lock Justin Harrison was given an eight month ban after admitting three similar drug-related charges, including taking cocaine, in a separate RFU hearing.
A fifth Bath player, England prop Matt Stevens, is presently serving a two-match suspension after testing positive for cocaine last December. He subsequently parted company with the club.
The three players had originally been accused of conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game on a number of charges, including "taking prohibited substances and wilful refusal to take a drugs test".
However shortly before the start of the hearing the charges of taking drugs were dropped.
When the RFU first brought the charges the players, who had vowed to contest the allegations vigorously, issued a collective statement which read: "This is a matter that we take very seriously and will do everything possible in order to clear our names."
Lipman, Crockett and Higgins terminated their Bath contracts after being accused by the club of failing to take a drugs test on three occasions following an end-of-season celebration in London on 10 May. The players quit immediately before they were due to appear before an internal disciplinary hearing, claiming their positions at the club "had become untenable".
They also said Bath's investigation had been misled by an anonymous source making "scurrilous and unsubstantiated" claims. The RFU then launched their own investigation, led by Twickenham's disciplinary manager Bruce Rees-Russell.
On 17 June, the RFU charged all three players, stating that it was their intention to call on "a number of players, club management and other third parties to appear before the panel to support the case."
Last night Premier Rugby, which runs the elite end of the club game, welcomed the verdict. Chief executive Mark McCafferty said: "The ruling has strengthened the Premiership clubs' determination to take appropriate action to protect the core values of our sport. Our priority is to implement the new education and discipline programmes for the 2009-10 season to address these risks."
Q&A What's going on at Bath?
*Who was in the dock?
Michael Lipman, 29, flanker, Alex Crockett, 27, centre, and Andrew Higgins, 28, centre.
Rule 5.12 – conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game, includes wilful refusal to take drugs test.
*Who else has been banned?
Matt Stevens' received a two-year ban in February after a positive cocaine test, and Justin Harrison was given an eight-month ban for admitting taking illegal drugs at a hearing.
*Is there a drug crisis in rugby?
Martin Johnson does not believe so: "You can never be complacent, but in my experience there isn't a widespread problem."Reuse content