Leo Cullen believes the use of prescribed painkillers is not a problem in Irish rugby.
The Leinster head coach was asked for his thoughts on the issue on the back of a Newstalk interview on Wednesday in which his former Leinster and Ireland team-mate, Brian O’Driscoll, suggested their use was routine in both team camps during their mutual playing days.
The use of legal, prescribed painkillers does not contravene any sporting anti-doping regulations but concern has been expressed in some quarters over the ethics of using them, as well as the potential long-term effects which some painkillers could have on personal health.
Take Difene, for example. An anti-inflammatory which O’Driscoll used during his playing days, and mentioned more than once on radio this week, it has been linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke in a recent edition of the British Medical Journal.
There is body of opinion that the use of painkillers is, by definition, performance-enhancing in that it allows athletes to play at a level higher than their injury would otherwise allow.
The counter-argument to that is to ask where the list of prohibited substances would then end.
Would it include sports drinks, maybe? Caffeine tablets?
Either way, O’Driscoll’s openness in discussing the use of painkillers is to be welcomed in that it has triggered a degree of discussion at a time when the demands on so many professional rugby players are so great and so incessant.
“I was never a big fan (of painkillers as a player) and, even to this day, I’m not a big fan of taking medication,” said Cullen. “That’s not say I haven’t taken an anti-inflammatory. Like, rugby as a game, it’s a physical contact sport. With that comes inflammation.
“What would you take to get rid of inflammation? It would be an anti-inflammatory probably. There is a certain part of the professional game that has supplementation or whatever that is, in terms of different types of legal medication.
“To say there is an image of medication being handed out willy nilly, I think that is a very unfair reflection on the environment we have here at the moment, and that’s all I’m really concerned about, the environment we have here at the moment.
“I’m not interested in dragging up things from the past. That would be my view.”
O’Driscoll, who retired from the game in 2014, did remark that there are now tighter controls on the use of prescription painkillers in rugby and Cullen harked back to the old amateur days of players sinking pints after games as evidence the game is constantly moving on.
“There is a natural evolution to everything.”
This, clearly wasn’t an issue he wanted to be discussing two days out from Leinster’s crucial Heineken Champions Cup tie away to Bath and he made the point at one stage that he was a rugby player-turned-coach rather than a doctor.
Still, he was emphatic when declaring that this wasn’t a problem in the game here.
“No,” he said. “Any time there is medication involved everyone needs to be very, very cautious. Ultimately we need to provide an environment that is very safe for the players. I think we have unbelievable medical support in this environment at the moment.
“The care and duty of care that we provide for the players I think is second to none. It would really upset me if that was tarnished in any way whatsoever because I understand how much the people that care for the players actually care for them.
“That’s what we are trying to control. I can’t control what went on in the past because I was one of ‘X’ amount of players over a long period of time.
“I can talk about my own experiences, I can’t talk about everyone else’s because I don’t know what their relations were with doctors etc.”
Cullen’s take on it was, understandably, black and white. The Leinster coach gave the example of a rolled ankle that had swollen up “like a balloon”. What to do, he asked rhetorically. You ice it and more than likely take an anti-inflammatory.
Rhys Ruddock, Cullen’s captain this weekend, was similarly straightforward.
“Any experience I’ve had in dealing with medical staff, physios, doctors the care we get in rugby has always been top-class,” said the Ireland back row. “You get guided in the right direction. Same way you would expect to be if you go to see your GP.
“Whatever the route of care — seeing a surgeon, getting physio, getting an anti-inflammatory or painkiller — if you got an injury it is dealt with in that way. I don’t see an issue with it. Again, I can’t comment on what Brian said.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.