Rugby union reveals lack of performance enhancing tests

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Today the Rugby Football Union announced the testing statistics for 2012-13 and proudly reported no positives for performance enhancing drugs at an elite level.  A good thing surely?  What about the positive illicit drug tests?


Today the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the governing body of the English game, released their ‘Anti-Doping Annual Report‘ for the 2012-13 season.  The headline figure was that they had conducted 617 in and out of competition samples for performance enhancing drugs (I’ll deal with the recreational later in this post).  There were no positive samples for such drugs at the elite level (England national team and Premiership).  The ‘performance enhancing drugs’ strand of the RFU tests threw up five positive tests at lower levels: two for methylhexaneamine (see previous blogs here and here), one for Dianabol (trade name for the anabolic steroid methandrostenolone) and two unnamed drugs.  A little digging on the UKAD website tells us those two are likely to be one sample containing the steroids clenbuterol (the drug taken by Alberto Contador) and nandrolone metabolite 19-norandrosterone, and the other for cocaine metabolite benzoylecgonine.

All of this is very good, does this mean that Rugby Union is a (performance enhancing) drug free sport? No positives at the elite level is a good sign.  The International Rugby Board also conducts tests of their own, these have been incorporated in the RFU figures (there were 179 out of competition and 10 in competition tests conducted in the UK by the IRB).  The IRB reported 16 positive cases in 2012, from a total of over 1500 tests conducted by themselves (none were English).  The global number of rugby union tests was reported as over 5500 in 2011 (last available) with 61 positive cases.  Overall these figures are good, a touch over 1 % of samples are positive which is very much in line with the global sports testing positive rate.

The negative I take from this report is that this really isn’t a very big number of tests being undertaken. The weighting is high on out of competition samples – 75 % (although in itself not a negative in means very few in competition tests).  There were 217 tests conducted amongst the Premiership players (in and out of competition).  There are 22 rounds of matches, 11 each week (242 matches) plus the playoffs and final making a total of 245 matches.  From the published figures we can estimate there are 54 in competition tests (25 % of 217 total) making it around 1 test for every 5 matches! In those figures I am ignoring the European competition also which dilutes that even further. Each team in the Premiership has 15 players on the pitch at a time, usually with a match squad of 22 (so 44 players per match), which gives you very small odds of being chosen to give an in competition test if the player is randomly selected.

Out of competition is usually the best time to catch a player using steroids (which would clearly be of use to a rugby player).  There were an estimated 163 out of competition tests (75 % of 217).  There are 12 teams in the Premiership, each with say a squad of 30 first team, which makes approximately 360 players.  At most 50 % of the elite players could be tested out of competition each year.  Combine that with the very small likelyhood of being tested in competition and you have a very long odd of being tested during the Premiership season.

As a comparison the Football Association conducted 1413 tests over the same period (yes there are more professional football teams, just a comparison).

Illicit drugs programme

Positives for illicit drugs are not new for rugby union.  The highest profile case is Bath and England prop Matt Stevens, who tested positive for cocaine in December 2008 and was banned from the game for two years.  The following year four more Bath players tested positive for recreational drugs.  After these incidents the RFU took the step of introducing their ‘Illicit Drugs Testing’ policy.  This is similar to that talked about previously for cricket and used by the Football Association (see blog post here).  Whilst cricket is new to the idea of hair testing for recreational drugs, so the RFU has had the ability to test for drugs in hair for three years now.  For this part of their testing programme the RFU sent 345 tests off to the labs to be analysed, 83 % of these samples were hair (see advantages of hair samples here).  Of the 345 tests 304 were from different players and 54 % of Premiership players were tested at least once.  This is much more positive news to me than the performance enhancing part above but then you could ask why is this policy in place?  The first time offender is fined and offered help and support but not named openly.  Matt Stevens, for example, was caught during an anti doping test which meant it was deemed a doping violation and a two year ban.  Do the RFU want their star players found to be using performance drugs banned? Should they be? I agree with their policy here, if a drug is being used socially or recreationally then it should not lead to sporting sanction, but a large fine and an education or treatment programme is appropriate.  The bonus to the RFU is that it is keeping their top players out of the papers and on the pitch.


In summary, based on the testing figures Rugby Union does not appear to have a big performance enhancing drug problem. But – are they really looking hard enough?  A less than one in five chance of a drug tester turning up to your game plus a 50 % chance of being tested at all out of competition during the season does not look like much of a deterrent or a serious attempt to catch dopers.


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. 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. Dr B is currently a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. And yes... he watches CSI.