Hugh Godwin: RFU must reassure us that drug taking is not rife

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The Independent Online

The most difficult task facing the Rugby Football Union, as they review the drugs-related investigations at Bath, is not to prove that something at the club has gone badly wrong. Patently, it has, when the club has been moved to demand a number of its players – professional sportsmen acutely attuned to the dangers of drugs and the consequences of taking them – submit to testing of their blood, urine and hair follicles. Reassuring the game at large and the uninitiated beyond it that illegal drug use is not rife in the sport is a different matter.

In attempting to nail this piece of jelly to the wall, the RFU and the International Rugby Board stand by a drug-testing programme which they believe is thorough and diligent. All Premiership players are required to declare their whereabouts for an hour a day, every day. There is random testing in and out of competition. If there was widespread use of cocaine among professional players, there would be more positive results and bans such as the two years given to Bath prop Matt Stevens last February. Either that or the testing is not picking them up.

That returns the critical gaze to Bath, and whether we are seeing the death throes of a culture confined to the (aptly named?) Recreation Ground, or a misguided witch hunt. The IoS has canvassed players inside and outside the club and found them angry or flabbergasted – or both – that fellow professionals might be using illegal drugs. Sources described an unwillingness on the part of the club's management to confront players which may have allowed questionable behaviour to run unchecked. No group meetings were held to warn players off similar indiscretions to Stevens' after his career-threatening suspension.

The foulest rumour is that a young Bath player ended up in hospital after dabbling with a drug during a day's partying by first-team and academy players in London on Sunday 10 May. An eye witness recalled someone passing out after drinking two jugs of strong lager in 15 minutes. Whatever, that day was followed by the club's request that a number of players take drugs tests, the report of which in the News of the World a week later led to the RFU revving up their own disciplinary machine. Whatever happened during the season gone by, or during the partying at two bars in the capital, there was now a schism between the club and four of its players. Justin Harrison quit and returned home to Australia for "personal reasons". Alex Crockett, Andrew Higgins and Michael Lipman, with 20 years' service between them, "terminated" their contracts last Monday while denying "false and defamatory allegations" made against them by "anonymous sources" and vowing to clear their names.

When the Bath contingent departed The Church bar in Kentish Town – whose website carried an unincriminating photo of Olly Barkley, Crockett, Pieter Dixon, David Flatman and Scott Hobson, which has since been removed – that Sunday to join counterparts from Harlequins at the Pitcher & Piano in Chiswick, they were following a routine established on a similar day out three years ago. On this occasion the Harlequins players were in fancy dress and the theme was "super-heroes". Whether there was anything heroic in the punch, reportedly from Harlequins flanker and captain Will Skinner, which knocked Harrison to the floor as darkness gathered, depends on your view of bar-room etiquette and rugby's values. It is understood a Bath player took a swing at a Quins scrum-half earlier in the day and missed by so far that those who saw it dissolved into laughter.

The events since have been anything but funny. A common misconception is that drugs in sport are prohibited only if they are "performance-enhancing". Cocaine is banned because it is regarded as dangerous to the health of an athlete and those around him. The RFU's disciplinary investigators stayed in Bath and took statements while they liaised with the club, and expect to report back this week. They are unlikely to throw light on anything but the wreckage at the Rec.