World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper has said there is no evidence of systematic doping at the elite level of the sport, despite the spotlight turning once again on performance-enhancing drugs in South Africa.
The Springboks lost the services of rising wing star Aphiwe Dyantyi for the World Cup after he was formally charged with a doping offence for multiple anabolic steroids and metabolites, having tested positive in July.
South African rugby was further rocked by the revelation that six age-grade players tested positive for anabolic steroids at the 2018 Craven Week, a world-renowned schoolboy competition.
Nor was the perception of a doping culture helped by a picture of the bare-chested and physically ripped Springboks World Cup squad which went viral on social media recently.
Gosper insisted yesterday, during the Rugby World Cup opening press conference in Tokyo, that the governing body’s drug-testing programme and anti-doping policies were effective. The elite-level average for positives over the last four years was at around 0.4% of findings, according to World Rugby’s anti-doping general manager Mike Earl.
“First of all, we invest vast sums of money in a very meticulous drug-testing programme in terms of testing via passports,” said Gosper.
“We’ve been testing the players at this World Cup for the last four years and haven’t stopped, mainly out-of-competition, where you’re more likely to catch offenders.
“But at the elite level, we’re not seeing that issue. Yes, we still believe rugby is a sport for all shapes and sizes, though they’re more fit shapes and sizes than back in the day.
“We have also generated some pretty innovative law changes around player welfare designed to open up some space in the game, to take some of the brute strength elements out of it to try and progress in those areas. We’ll see how those trials go.
“In the elite game there are exceptional findings occasionally but no systemic problem. We’re very confident in our drug-testing programme.”
The picture of the South African squad and their rippling muscles was seized on by those who suspect there is a systematic doping culture in rugby, although for the Boks, their condition is a point of pride. Their head of athletic performance is the former Munster head of strength and conditioning, Aled Walters, who followed former provincial boss Rassie Erasmus to South Africa in November 2017.
“That photo has taken some mileage. I actually took that photo, which is quite amusing,” Walters said during a Springbok press conference in Tokyo on Sunday.
“I’m pretty happy with where the boys are. Obviously we are hoping that we will have another seven weeks out here.”
Yet Springbok forwards coach Matt Proudfoot was forced onto the back foot yesterday when quizzed on doping in South African rugby.
“I’m a forwards coach. That’s something for administrators to answer, I wouldn’t be able to answer that question, I don’t have the information to answer that question,” said Proudfoot. “If you ask me something about the game specifically, I could answer that but that is for the administrators.”
Proudfoot also batted away the suggestion that the image of South African rugby was being tarnished by the number of failed tests.
“I think the image of South African rugby is portrayed by what you see on the field.
Pointing to the rigorous testing his players are subjected to, Proudfoot said the current anti-doping regime “has to be working”.
“It has been proven in athletics, the way the Russian Federation was (banned), the testing is the only viable mechanism for clean sport.
“I understand why the narrative is there, I don’t have the data to be able to comment on that.
“If you ask me on something about scrums and lineouts and to play a game against New Zealand, I could comment on that but I’m not someone who gathers data.”