JEFF, AN ex-professional rugby player living in the North-west of England, knows a lot about steroids. Some of his acquaintances are dealers and some of his friends are suffering health problems after years of use. Jeff played both codes of the game before an injury-forced retirement about seven years ago but is still closely involved in the sport.
"Watching certain teams and knowing what goes on, you can identify the players who are using steroids," he said of current professionals. "You can see quite a substantial amount are `on the gear', as we call it.
"At the higher levels in rugby it's widespread because they're allowed to get away with it," Jeff added. "First of all they're not getting tested - either enough or at the right times - and secondly they [the authorities] are sweeping it under the carpet."
In response to The Independent's survey of drug use in British sport, four per cent of rugby union players admitted having used anabolic agents. None of the rugby league players admitted using them, but 46 per cent said they thought steroids were being used. In rugby union, the figure was 31 per cent.
When asked if current regulations were appropriate, 62 per cent of union and 46 per cent of league players said "no". Increased testing, of a random nature and especially in the off-season, were among specific changes called for.
Jeff (not his real name), said modern rugby has moved away from being a game played by "naturally big blokes, like farmers and labourers" to being a game with a base in "gym culture." When Clive Woodward, the England rugby union coach, spoke earlier this year of northern hemisphere players needing to "bulk up", he certainly did not mean submerging themselves in the type of places where Jeff trained.
One gym, Jeff said, had a no-drugs policy but "gear" was available from dealers in the car park. At another, the set-up was more professional, to the extent that the owners would inject steroids for players and even sell masking agents in eight to 12-week "package deals" costing anywhere from pounds 200 to pounds 300. Such gyms, Jeff said, are still common.
He added it was often not difficult to spot steroid users. "I remember a couple of props who went from little blokes to monsters almost overnight," he said. He said other signs include a condition know as "bitch tits" - where the nipples hang away from the chest in the same way a dog's nipples do when weaning pups - acne, and "steroid rage", where users have mood swings, often violent.
Welsh rugby union is still reeling from recent accusations made by the former international full-back JPR Williams that drug-taking is "fairly rife" in the sport and an investigation into the allegations is under way.
Irish rugby is still digesting remarks made by Neil Francis, the former international lock, who said: "It's only a matter of time before an Irish international drops dead because his blood has turned to sludge."
South Africa's statistical record for positive tests remains the most alarming, with 10 bans for steroid use and eight for stimulants since Dr Ismail Jakoet, chairman of the South African Rugby Union's medical committee, set out on a drug-busting mission in his country in 1992. The Springbok lock Johann Ackerman remains the highest profile, having received a two-year ban after being found with traces of a steroid in his system in 1996, but South Africa is now regarded as the squeaky clean member of rugby union's world family.
"Look at the number of drug tests carried out by us compared to England, New Zealand and Australia. It's a joke," Dr Jakoet said. "More than 250 tests, 50 per cent of which are out of season, are conducted on South African players on an annual basis."
The English Rugby Football Union recently decided to increase its annual quota from 65 to 200 a year. "The RFU takes the matter of alleged steroid and drug abuse very seriously," a spokesman said yesterday. "Although no player registered with the RFU has tested positive for serious drugs abuse, it has recently increased its programme of tests." He added: "That 31 per cent of players believe there is steroid abuse in rugby union [as The Independent's survey showed] is not borne out by the tests we have undertaken."
At next year's World Cup, competing nations will have gone through a rigorous series of drugs tests in qualifying that outstrips any single national body's efforts and have been put in place because the world's eyes will be on them. "The International Rugby Board had this realisation that a drug scandal could tarnish the game in a very bad way," Chris Thau, a World Cup spokesman said. "For the showcase of the sport, they thought it was money well spent [to significantly increase testing] to keep the image of the game clean."
Rugby league regards itself as the most rigorous of sports in testing for drug abuse. The game follows International Olympic Committee procedures in testing players after randomly selected matches, as well as inviting the Sports Council's doping control unit to make unannounced visits to training - in and out of season - to take samples. The sport carries out over 200 tests a year - far more proportionately than the much larger game of professional football.
"We are confident that rugby league players are among the most monitored athletes in British professional sport," Neil Tunnicliffe, the Rugby Football League's chief executive, said. "We are very proud of the tough stance this sport has taken with drug takers."
Against that background of low tolerance, the sport has returned only a handful of positive tests. Two prominent players, the Doncaster full- back, Jamie Bloem, and the Oldham hooker, David Stephenson, have served maximum two-year bans for steroid use and have returned to the game with other clubs. Bloem, now with Halifax, later claimed in a newspaper article that drug abuse was widespread in the sport, but then withdrew that accusation. In a survey organised by the RFL in 1996, 70 per cent said that they believed the game's drug policy was effective and that the game did not have a widespread problem of abuse. Thirty per cent disagreed.
Additional reporting by Gary Lemke.
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