'An exceptional young man': Fitzgerald defends Munster's decision to sign Grobler

'An exceptional young man': Fitzgerald defends Munster's decision to sign Grobler
Gerbrandt Grobler in action against Leinster in 2018.

Former Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald has defended the province's handling of Gerbrandt Grobler's signing, calling him "an exceptional young man".

The South African lock failed a drugs test for the anabolic steroid drostanolone after a game in 2014. After serving a two-year ban from rugby, he joined Munster in 2017 following a one-year stint with Racing 92.

Amid the controversy over signing Grobler despite a "zero-tolerance approach to doping", Munster and the IRFU were forced to release a statement defending the signing as being "within the spirit and values of rugby" ahead of his competitive debut in February 2018.

Speaking on an exclusive Examiner Sport podcast, Fitzgerald said Munster were aware of his ban and followed the usual procedures with any signing.

"It's very easy to say it was a bad decision [signing Grobler] when it's all over. The recruitment that went on, from my memory, wasn't any different than any other previous recruitment in that you looked at the CV, you looked at the individual, you checked up on all the different things that had happened or not happened beforehand to see were you getting the best possible candidate.

"Rassie [Erasmus] knew him exceptionally well, had worked with him previously. He had openly admitted what he'd done himself and never tried to defend it.

"We spoke to him. He had come to play with Racing when his suspension was up. Obviously, we'd a connection in Racing, just to know about the individual, to get a rugby reference on him.

"We were aware of it. It's like anyone, if you're sent to prison and you do your sentence, it doesn't mean you should be prevented from [returning to rugby]. He did what World Rugby authorities deemed to be the appropriate punishment. The decision was, at the time, was he the best person to fill the position that was available?

"Obviously, no-one is in favour of anyone taking substances they shouldn't be and I wouldn't be [in favour] now, in the future, or in the past. We would've had people in the past who did things that were wrong that they got punished for and you have to accept those as well, and I think it'll happen in the future."

Writing in his Irish Examiner column at the time, Donal Lenihan said the decision went against Munster's principles: "The signing should never have happened. It sends out the wrong message to everyone in the organisation... It was shortsighted and unnecessary."

Asked if Grobler's signing compromised Munster values, Fitzgerald insisted it did not.

Garrett Fitzgerald
Garrett Fitzgerald

"No, everything was done correctly. People are at the centre of everything, the right people, caring for people.

"Whether it was a mistake or not, that's for each person to decide themselves but the thing was handled as professionally and as caring as it would be for any other employee of the organisation."

Talking about Grobler himself, Fitzgerald said he had the talent to play for Ireland.

"He was an exceptional young man. The whole debate that followed had a huge influence on his life and affected him in a major way.

"We were glad to be able to help him through that along with his family, who came to Ireland on a couple of occasions.

"Would you have done any different? You'd say to yourself surely if you were recruiting someone in the future, the best thing you could do if that comes up is avoid all that hassle for the sake of your brand and your supporters.

"When you make a decision, you do, at the time, what you think is the right thing to do. At the end of the day, we were employing a rugby player to do a job, and he was a very good rugby player.

If he stayed on in Ireland, I think he could have played for Ireland, just taking his rugby ability, but the whole thing has had quite an effect on him as an individual and his career.

"I've met him once or twice since he moved to play in Gloucester. He wasn't bitter. He was disappointed it upset his rugby development."

Grobler has since said: "When the news hit, it was like: ‘He is going to leave; he should leave.’ I was contracted with the IRFU and there were a few conversations about signing a three-year deal but obviously that was shot down very quickly after the media fiasco."

Addressing the media reaction at the time, Fitzgerald said: "I have absolutely no issue with people having very strong opinions on it but it's how you say them that's hugely important in people's lives.

He added: "I think the mediums of communication that are now available give uninformed people an opportunity to say things they're not informed about."

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