Jamie acton could not have been clearer. “You’re probably abnormal in the rugby league world if you haven’t taken drugs at some point, whether that is socially or performance-enhancing,” the former Leigh forward said this year when he revealed he had taken drugs throughout his career.
Rugby league is certainly not immune to drugs; to suggest otherwise would be irresponsible. But Acton’s claim that a player was “abnormal” if they hadn’t been involved with drugs raised the question of just how much the game had overlooked the issue.
Does rugby league have a deeper ‑ rooted problem with drugs than the sport always believed? “I don’t recognize those comments from Jamie,” says the Rugby Football League’s chief regulatory officer, Karen Moorhouse.
“We’ve spoke with current and former players who also say they didn’t identify with them, but it does highlight the work we are trying to do to make sure we keep the sport clean and to keep the achievements of the players as honest as possible. Those claims have not been led to a flood of other admissions. ”
Rugby league was the third-most tested sport in the UK last year by UK Anti-Doping, with more than 600 tests on players carried out. Six players across the professional and amateur game are serving Ukad-enforced bans for drugs, including Acton, who became the first player to be banned for a historical offense after he admitted his previous substance abuse in January.
In rugby union that number is 18, while in football there are only three. That would imply that the two rugby codes have a bigger issue than other sports.
“I’m absolutely sure there is the odd person risking their career and doing it because they feel a lack of confidence or they’re not where they want to be physically,” says former England international Kevin Brown. “But as far as it’s being widespread, having played in the Super League for so long, I’d say that’s not true. We get tested so much, you’d have to spend so much on drugs that escape the system. I’ve played at a lot of clubs. I’ve not seen it. I would have heard a lot more about it. ”
Brown is not the only former player to share that opinion.
Garreth Carvell is the head of the Rugby League Players Association but he also played in the Super League throughout his career and represented Great Britain too. “That accusation [from Acton] puts players like myself under the spotlight, because they’re saying things like ‘everybody was doing it’, ”he says.
“I was tested rigorously. I never tested positive. It was a shot out of the blue to suggest it was widespread and I’m not sure that’s the truth. ”
However, despite the belief that performance-enhancing drug abuse is minimal, there is an issue which is impossible to ignore. In recent years, several players have tested positive for recreational drugs such as cocaine, including international players such as Rangi Chase and Zak Hardaker.
Club owners are privately aware that social drugs are a growing problem, and the RFL has ramped up its educational policies on the matter. “Social drugs are absolutely a live issue, but we have a policy that starts from encouraging anyone who has an issue with recreational drugs to approach us and it will be treated as a welfare issue rather than disciplinary,” Moorhouse says. “We believe we have the tools in our armor to tackle it.”
One current international player who did not wish to be named, underlined the severity of the problem: “I don’t see much in the way of performance-enhancing drugs but things like cocaine… there are a lot of players who are in and around that on weekends with their mates and I can appreciate it’s easy to get dragged into. ”
Carvell says, “I think I could take a guess at maybe three players throughout my career who took performance-enhancing drugs, and that’s a guess.
“On the social drugs side it’s different, but I think it’s a societal issue that has creeped into the game. The lads live a normal social life despite their status and that sort of thing blends into the game a lot easier because of the lives the players have. ”
While policies and routine testing can minimize performance-enhancing drug abuse, societal issues will be much more difficult to counter in a sport where players are often exposed to scenarios that include recreational drugs. “There’s help there in place, but the most important thing is reminding these guys of the consequences,” Carvell says. “Maybe we, as a union, need to do more on that.”