Does professional rugby have a drugs problem?

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There has been an increase in doping control positive samples from rugby players recently. Has rugby (combined league and union) now overtaken the cyclists as the sportsmen at the forefront of doping?

2014-11-09 09.54.00-1Now it doesn’t need a trained medical doctor or even a sports doping expert to see the physical size of the rugby players today does not match up with those of 20 years ago. It has been suggested this is mainly to do with drugs, but there could be other valid reasons.  It was only twenty years ago this year that Rugby Union became a professional sport. With professionalism comes money, which means that the players no longer had to work part time to support themselves. This money frees up time for the players to spend in the gym and allows them to access expert advice on all aspects of their training including in nutrition and supplement usage.  The counter would be the money has made the stakes somewhat higher, well paid professionals can earn very high salaries, so this may prompt others to dope to emulate them. Rugby League has been a professional sport since its inception in 1895 but recently the players’ physiques have also changed with a more lean and bulky look. Both codes have become a lot faster and more physical than in the past, prompting suspicious eyebrows to be raised in some quarters. Is their any evidence of a drug problem?

I had a check on the latest testing information from UK Anti Doping.  On the first page of current sanction there are 20 doping cases, 15 of which are Rugby Union or League.  Of the 48 current sanctions listed 27 of them are Rugby related, 56 %.  These break down to 18 for Union and 9 for league.  I had predicted that it would be the other way round with League more likely, but that is not what I found.  The Rugby Football Union (England only) reported last year that they had 5 positive samples from 536 samples collected, this is about 1% positive which is fairly standard for most sports.  The 536 tests is not a great number though when you consider that encompasses the Premiership (167 tests), a competition consisting of 12 teams as well as international matches and the lower leagues.  The current top placed Premiership team have 45 players in their squad.  If this is similar across all clubs then the Premiership alone has around 500 players.  If each of those 167 tests on Premiership players was a different player then they only have around a 33% chance of being tested at all. I discussed this previously here and you can find the RFU report here.

Internationally there were over 6000 tests on rugby union with 1.3 % positive which is marginally higher positive rate than that of cycling at 1.2%.  It doesn’t prove there is more doping in rugby than cycling, but it may be in the same ballpark.

So what are they using?

The latest positive test (released last week) was a rugby league player who tested positive for Growth Hormone Releasing Peptide-2 (pralmorelin) and its metabolite, a first for this (a good account of the case is reported here).  This is used to help increase muscle mass and aid recovery from injury. The table below shoes the category of drugs used by rugby players currently sanctioned by UKAD.  This shows that steroids and growth hormone are the drugs of choice in rugby codes. One of the rugby leagues players had both growth hormone related substances and steroids in his sample, hence the number being 10 not the 9 reported above.   The first case of growth hormone being detected was also related to Rugby League.


In summary I would say it isn’t a pretty picture for the rugby codes given that 75% of the recent sanctions by UKAD are rugby players. It is hard to tell how widespread the doping is based on this small number of tests but internationally it is similar to cycling and boxing. The number of tests seems to me to be woefully low (particularly in Rugby Union in England) if they are serious about determining the extent of their doping problem and then targeting a reduction in doping.


Thanks for reading.  Any thoughts on Rugby and whether it is serious about the doping problem?

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.