A Drug Free Sport survey has found “preconditions for doping” in schoolboy rugby, writes Gregor Paul.
There are growing concerns schoolboy rugby is a fertile environment for drug taking to become rife.
Drug Free Sport New Zealand have seen how drugs have pervaded the schoolboy game in England and South Africa and have assessed that New Zealand is potentially equally at risk as players look to get bigger to ensure they get noticed.
Ten rugby players in England were banned because of drug use this year, with most of them young players, and a report out of South Africa showed that, out of 52 schoolboy rugby players tested in the Republic, 12 returned positive tests for anabolic steroids.
A comprehensive survey of supplement use in New Zealand schools has been carried out and the findings have caused Drug Free Sport some concern.
"The preconditions are there for doping because of the rewards and the availability of supplements," Drug Free Sport chief executive Graeme Steel said.
Schoolboy rugby has become a high-pressure environment, with players now being recruited directly into Super Rugby franchises - like Auckland Grammar's Rieko Ioanewho was signed by the Blues as a full squad member for the 2016 season.
Many youngsters believe that if they haven't been noticed by the end of high school they will never make it as a professional and some are taking matters into their own hands, sourcing supplements off the internet.
Expectation, ambition, ignorance and, to a lesser extent, greed are combining in top schools' rugby programmes around New Zealand to create environments that are worryingly fertile for drug taking to become rife.
No one will want to believe that. No parent in New Zealand will be easily persuaded that the most prestigious schools in the country are potentially the most vulnerable. The idea first XV rugby, the most pure and wholesome pursuit, could be riddled with illicit supplement taking will be too easily laughed off as ridiculous.
Not rugby. Not in the best schools. Just wouldn't happen.
The signing by the Blues of Rieko Ioane while he was still an Auckland Grammar student is part of a new trend of Super Rugby sides on both sides of the Tasman recruiting straight from schools. Photo / Getty Images
But Drug Free Sport New Zealand have a different view. The agency have seen how drugs have pervaded the schoolboy game in England and South Africa and believe New Zealand is potentially equally at risk.
A major survey of supplement use in schools has been carried out and the findings have caused Drug Free Sport some concern. "The preconditions are there for doping because of the rewards and the availability of supplements," says Drug Free Sport chief executive Graeme Steel.
That schoolboy rugby has been labelled a concern by Drug Free Sport is not necessarily a surprise. Last year, the Herald ran a week long series on Auckland's world famous 1A competition which highlighted the importance schools place on rugby success.
The overall impression was that many schools were training harder than ITM Cup teams and some were about as well funded and better resourced. It was equally obvious there was, generally, excessive pressure placed on boys to perform and teams to win - that winning was considered more important than it should have been and many players were driven and exclusively focused on breaking into the professional ranks.
In the 18 months since the series ran, the landscape has changed again. Perhaps inevitably, given the competitive market for players, Super Rugby sides in New Zealand and Australia have started recruiting directly from schools.
In the past, the best schoolboys would typically be offered provincial academy, development or sometimes full contracts. This year, however, Auckland Grammar's Rieko Ioane was signed by the Blues as a full squad member for 2016.
He won't be the only one and Auckland Grammar principal Tim O'Connor said recently it was becoming difficult for schools to keep rugby in perspective. Ioane signed with the Blues a week after the AGS first XV were crowned 1A champions - as they were preparing to play in the national Top Four competition - on a minimumof $75,000 a year.
What effect would that have on the rest of the team, seeing one of their peers make it to the professional ranks with four months of schooling left to complete? "He's a level-headed young man," said O'Connor. "He's mature and humble and that's part of the reason he's got where he is. Also, kids have a pretty good idea of who among them is that little bit special."
O'Connor is possibly right but there will be boys potentially capable of going far if they were just that bit bigger and stronger. Time isn't always on their side in this scenario. Statistics show those who miss the age-grade pathway face traversing a near-impossible route to the professional summit.
Some will feel they can't wait for nature to kick in, that if they are late developers physically, they might never find a way to break in. Anything that helps them build muscle, get stronger or find a physical advantage. . . it's going to be tempting.
There is a $1 billion industry loosely operating under the umbrella term of sports supplements. It's a minefield with what's available just in New Zealand knowing which are safe and approved. Then there are products that can be bought online. Some carry significant health risks, as well as being full of substances on the banned list.
Everyone from the under-13 C team to the All Blacks are seemingly looking for an edge and the multitude of protein and whey supplements, energy bars, sports drinks, stimulants and Harry Potter-like-concoctions are where most teams think they are going to find what they are looking for.
Ten rugby players in England were banned because of drug use this year, with most of them young, and a report out of South Africa showed that, out of 52 schoolboy
rugby players tested in the republic, 12 returned positive tests for anabolic steroids.
The NZRU spend more than $100,000 a year on drug testing and education. They carry out 70 tests a year on top of those of Drug Free Sport NZ. The agency carried out 274 tests on rugby players last year out of 1300 tests across all sports in New Zealand and were all done on All Blacks, Super 15 players and ITM Cup players.
The All Blacks use protein supplements - not as a gimmick or through a sense of obligation to keep up with everyone else, but because they say it wouldn't be possible for their athletes to retain their lean muscle mass without it.
All Blacks such as Sonny Bill Williams tip the scales at over 100kg but have incredibly low body fat percentages. Photo / Getty Images
Someone such as Sonny Bill Williams is 108kg and has only 35mm of fat in a skin-fold test. Maintaining such an impressive body composition is tough on food alone. On their recent tour of the United States and Europe, the consignment of supplements they shipped from New Zealand was held by UK Customs for two weeks and there was a level of angst about what effect that would have on the players.
"I think the rowing guys would say the same," says Steel, "that their nutritionist would argue that, given the volume of work they do and their need to be lean, they can't actually neat enough in a day." The All Blacks buy in bulk and have their nannual supply tested to be sure it's not contaminated. They were reluctant to source protein supplements in the UK while their safe batch was
Schoolboys emulating the All Blacks is normally to be encouraged, but not, says Steel, on the matter of supplement use. The age and physical profile of the athletes are vastly different. The All Blacks have a legitimate need - schoolboys don't.
Secondly, the All Blacks use 'safe' products that have proven benefit and are administered by professionals with deep understanding and knowledge of anti-doping rules.
"It's hard to conclude how well educated the schools are [in regard to supplements] from the survey," says Steel.
"It's the pre-work out stimulants athletes seem to favour [that are of most concern]. There are some schools who are aligned with supplement suppliers and, therefore, might not be getting good, quality, independent advice.
It's the schools' responsibility to educate players on supplements. They place such importance on success and put their players under pressure, so they have a responsibility to make sure players respond to that in the right way."
As the Herald series revealed, the approach between schools on such issues can vary dramatically.
Mt Albert Grammar director of sport David Long says he and the school's director of rugby Geoff Moon spend ample time talking to their players about the risks of taking supplements and discourage players from doing it.
"We make sure the boys understand the possible consequences," says Long. "We tell them they don't know what on Earth they are putting into their bodies with some of these products and they could throw their whole career away.
We put the forwards through a weight training programme which is all about hard work.
That's it. I think the other thing is that our guys can't afford supplements."
But asked if he would be surprised if the picture was different at other schools, Long says:
"No, that wouldn't surprise me. Not in Auckland. The 1A competition is so competitive."
Five reasons schoolboy rugby is vulnerable to supplement abuse
1.Competitive nature of most firstXV competitions. Huge importance is placed on winning.
2. Rugby is encouraged as a potential career and the financial rewards are significant.
Players need to be in the firstXV to get noticed.
3. The physical nature of the sport and different maturation rates of boys. Some players may feel they need help getting bigger and stronger to compete more effectively.
4. Lack of understanding and good advice about appropriate supplement use and acceptable, 'safe' products to take.
5. Vanity culture.Many young men feel pressure to 'look good'-build beach muscles and maintain good body tone.