French fear burned-out players will turn to drugs

Alex Hayes hears concerns that relentless fixture lists can lead to temptation
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a word that we have come to associate with weightlifting, cycling, swimming and even football. Few sports have escaped it and many have been forever tarnished by it. But European rugby has managed in the main to steer clear of doping. Until now.

It is a word that we have come to associate with weightlifting, cycling, swimming and even football. Few sports have escaped it and many have been forever tarnished by it. But European rugby has managed in the main to steer clear of doping. Until now.

Ten days ago, Pierre Berbizier, the former France manager, raised the issue in an interview with the French sports daily, L'Equipe. "Our [the French] championship creates ideal conditions for taking drugs," he said. "Such are the ridiculous demands put on them that I am in no doubt some of the best players are taking substances. As far as I'm concerned, doping these days is not just about Creatine; it's about products that can allow players to keep up with the over-burdened schedule. This is fact, not fiction."

Jacques Fouroux, who was Berbizier's predecessor at the helm of the French team, has called for an immediate meeting - "to discuss this problem and find some solutions" - between the league, which is run by Serge Blanco; the national federation, presided over by Bernard Lapasset; and Serge Simon's Professional Players' Association.

"Doping is not only the problem of others. Rugby would be wiser to accept the existence of this plague within its ranks, rather than appear to turn a blind eye," said Fouroux who, in partnership with another former international, Robert Paparemborde, wants to create an anti-drug charter, which would include a system of prevention as well as a help centre to give assistance to players "who cheated in the past".

Following his comments, Berbizier was immediately summoned to explain himself in front of Blanco and Lapasset. He will travel to Paris to hold talks on the "drugs issue", but is confused as to why his comments have caused such a stir. "I am not saying that every player is systematically on drugs," he explained. "All I am doing is sending out a warning that, if we don't act quickly, the number of drug users will increase dramatically."

The former France No 9, who was coaching Narbonne until he resigned last month, is further perturbed by the holier-than-thou attitudes within the rugby ranks. "We must forget this unwritten law that no one speaks out about anything in rugby," he said. "The silence must be broken."

Drugs in rugby? "Never," seems to be the response from many. Yet substances such as Creatine are widely - and openly - used by professionals in the southern hemisphere, so why should their European counterparts not do the same? Understandably, few players have been willing to stick their necks out, on either side of the Channel. In France, only Raphael Chanal, the Aurillac centre, has gone as far as admitting that professionals consider taking drugs. "We are playing so many games in a season that either we abandon certain matches or we accept that players will have to turn to doping," he said last week.

Fabien Pelous concedes there might be a few rotten apples, but maintains that the vast majority of the barrel is clean. The French captain, though, insists he is well aware that it takes only a very small number of "cheats to tarnish a sport". The Tricolores are at a training camp in Toulouse, preparing for the Six Nations, and the manager, Bernard Laporte, has promised to address the issue with the players.

So what of England? Philippe Sella, who played club rugby for two years at Saracens, says he was not shocked by Berbizier's views because "money and the advent of professionalism have undoubtedly changed the face of the sport and perhaps tempted some to cheat". But, while the most capped player of all time is in no doubt that drugs play "a part" in the modern game, he refutes the suggestion that they are commonplace.

"I have never seen any top player take drugs to build muscle strength or help confidence," Sella said. "I spent two seasons in England, where Creatine is not banned in rugby, and I can honestly say that I never saw anybody use it. I can only deduce that if English-based players are doping themselves, they are doing it in complete secret."

Damian Hopley, the president of the Professional Rugby Players' Association, echoes Sella's views. He believes players would not be able to get away with taking drugs in this country. "I don't think the use of drugs is prominent over here at all," he said. "Not only is the testing rigorous, but drug takers would soon be found out by team-mates and dismissed by their clubs."

Everyone will hope that the confidence shown by both Sella and Hopley is justified, but the game cannot afford to take that for granted.

Comments