David Flatman: Unlike that bloke Armstrong, I once failed a drugs test

From the Front Row: 'Doping,' he said. I went, I sat and I threw water into my system
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The Independent Online

Hang on a minute; let me add some context to this headline before you damn me as the next Lance Armstrong. What I am about to describe is a week so dreadful that a failed drugs test will seem insignificant. Yes, a letter written entirely in French landed in my pigeon hole and yes, I had to have Thomas Castaignède translate it for me but, to be honest, by that point I had resigned myself to a career in the shadows anyway.

It all began one crisp Monday morning as I rolled into camp with the England A squad for a match against France A. It was a big game, so the lead-up was crucial. "Passports please," said the team manager, and this is where it all started. By Wednesday afternoon, and against all odds, I had a new passport. Sadly, to achieve this I had to miss every training session and tactical briefing. The fact that my original passport dropped out of my wash bag (where I had placed it so as not to lose it) as I packed for the airport is something I have kept a secret from all but my dog. Let's call it an exclusive.

That hurdle hurdled, we boarded the plane and headed for Paris, from where we would catch a connecting flight to Toulouse. A select few of us broke away from the other rose-embossed T-shirts; it was time for a croissant and a chocolat chaud in an airport café. As we gulped and gossiped, a funny little Frenchman waffled away on the PA system, God knows what he was on about.

We finished up, had a wander around the shops and meandered towards our designated gate. We were the first there, by a mile. Or so we thought. In fact, we had all – a pack of grown-ups – forgotten to adjust our wristwatches. As we looked down the gangway, we saw the entire squad aboard the transport bus, ready to head to the plane proper. We were saved. Except that the women on the desk refused to let us walk the 20 metres to said bus. Health and safety, they said. In French.

Our head coach came to our rescue by disembarking the bus and walking back through to offer some reason. Then he was refused re-entry to the bus. His passport was on the bus. Enough said. We were doomed.

So papers were copied and faxed (this was some time ago) and we arrived at our hotel around midnight. It could not get any worse, I reflected, so I got my head down, excited for the big match the next day. That side of things was all going smoothly; I was packing down against Nicolas Mas and life was solid at the coalface. Then I threw a basketball pass inside our 22. It was intercepted for the winning try.

I apologised to the lads and moped off towards the changing room, only to be tapped on the shoulder by a man in a suit, clipboard in hand. "Doping," he said, "doping for you." Ah, a friendly drugs test to cap it all.

I went, I sat and I threw the water into my system. After an hour and a half, and with a large gentleman kneeling down in front of me, staring without blinking at my genitals – an odd way to spend an evening – I produced a sample. It was only as we left the testing suite that we noticed the empty corridors around us. Forty-five minutes later the team bus, with the entire squad and coaching team on board, arrived to pick us up, having forgotten us.

Feeling as low as I ever had, I called my father who, along with my mother, had driven all the way to Toulouse to watch me lose us the match, and began to reveal my misery, episode by episode. "Mate," he interjected, "I can't talk now. Mum's appendix has burst." At this point I looked skyward and fully expected a lightning bolt to take my eye out.

We landed at Heathrow and made our way back to our respective clubs; life went on. Then the letter arrived. "You are in big shit, my friend," said Thomas, for once not giggling. I had the letter sent to the Doc, who confirmed that yes, I had failed the pee test, and was banned from playing rugby in France for two years.

But nobody panic, I only failed because of my asthma puffer; something I have used every day for the last 30 years and something which is legal everywhere else. It just happened to be disallowed for a period in France. Naturally, I was innocent and the matter cleared up, but it was stressful. Anyway, they needn't have bothered, as England never selected me to play over there again. No idea why.