Drug Testing for High School Rugby is the Right Thing to do

Top Four Championship

Drug Testing for High School rugby players is the right thing to do – regardless of consent issues and interpretations of ‘what is fair’ on New Zealand’s most prominent up and coming sportsmen.

This comes in the light of revelations by Drug Free Sport New Zealand looking to conduct random drug-sampling of High School rugby players, in the upcoming Top Four schools competition in August.

While the issue has raised many topics, the indicators are that it might be a radical view to some. Arguments can be made for the proposal, of whether to simply dismiss the issue of consent (whether by the players themselves or the parents), but there is no reason that First XV rugby shouldn’t be focused on–as are school age athletes in sports that compete in the Olympics; see rugby sevens, and even Paralympics.

The reality is, there is an expectation that any consequences of breaking the rules [use of drugs or stimulants] need to be set from as early as this. Professionalism and ‘the greed that can come with it’ make the subject more intent, rather than human nature.

Player Education and Mandatory Testing Policy

School principles were advised yesterday by the New Zealand Secondary School Sports Council (NZSSC) and Drug Free Sport NZ (DFSNZ) of the plan to begin testing top school sides beginning in September. The anti-doping testing, that will involve players as young as 14, will take place at this year’s First XV national Top Four tournament in Palmerston North.

It signals the first time in New Zealand school sports history that anti-doping testing will be carried out. And naturally, reaction to the news has been mixed.

Some rugby experts say it is ‘absolutely the right thing to do’ for the betterment of the sport. While others say the move will cause major issues around consent and ‘isn’t fair’ on teenagers.

New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association boss Rob Nichol says he is ‘incredibly disappointed’ with the decision. Nichols’ stance is that there is a lack of education surrounding performance enhancers and questions why–once again–an opportunity for providing school players with more information has been missed.

“I’d have thought schools had a moral obligation and to hear that a Drug Free Sport programme wasn’t taken up left us astounded.”

Drug Testing for High School Rugby is the Right Thing to do

The NZPA can be as outraged as they like over the news. The testing will go ahead – regardless of consent [which they do not require formally] and the perceptions about what is the right, or the fair thing to do. New Zealand Rugby are the organizers, and are committed to the World Rugby agreement with WADA.

There is little doubt that there will be a handful of players, even at these young ages, that may currently or have previously taken banned substances. The majority though, will more commonly be adding supplements to their training regime. Most are ‘over the counter’ while it could be assumed that a small portion could be under it.

Whether they are doing it knowingly or not is beside the point – in New Zealand, South Africa and most likely the United Kingdom, First XV Rugby has now become a professional environment. A breeding ground for boys to become incorporated into the rugby-pathway. And it’s imperative that these tests are done to maintain a fair playing field.

Several Key Questions Need Asking:

Why Start So Young?

Because players are being plucked right out of school, and being thrust into National Provincial Championship (Mitre 10 Cup) in some instances. If they are talented, then they are targeted by other schools, clubs, Super Rugby franchises development programs and, other codes [rugby league].

Mount Albert Grammar players celebrate with the Auckland A1 Trophy after winning the Auckland Secondary Schools Final match between Mount Albert Grammar and Sacred Heart at Eden Park on August 20, 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Simon Watts/Getty Images)

Do DFSNZ/NZ Rugby Want to Set a Standard?

Introducing drug testing for high school rugby shouldn’t just occur at major tournaments either – it should happen far more often. Players, especially at these young ages, need to have consequences for their actions as well as education beforehand.

Are fans really going to sit back and say that [in 2017 with how easily information can be accessed via smartphone technology] First XV rugby players are unaware of what supplements are available and the consequences for using them? Others will argue that there isn’t at least a handful of those youngsters willing to do almost anything to get to the top. To secure that contract with a professional team.

To argue that ‘this isn’t happening in our sport’ is half the problem, as to why it’s got to this point in the first place. High performing athletes have been idealized for the way many All Blacks have risen through the ranks. The uptake of professional systems and programs has led to success, but with it, come risks and rewards.

Professionalism And Subsequent Expectations of Professionalism 

Last Word On Rugby has spoken to several former players who were ‘n the ‘big time’ back in the late 80’s and through the 90’s. Do you want to know what the majority of those men said?

They believed that teenagers playing rugby; or any other mainstream sport for that matter, for the top sides are no longer playing ‘just for the fun and enjoyment of the game’. The pseudo-professionalism level which is expected, now has a large part to play in the motivating factors behind doping and substance abuse.

Not only that, many turn a blind eye to it and refuse to acknowledge the activities existence. In an anonymous survey taken, the results indicated that the majority took supplements–while two high school students admitted to taking steroids. And the results favour more workshops and in-school presentations, to assist in the DFSNZ philosophy.

Many top-ranked schools through New Zealand would do best to embrace the education, rather than say ‘we don’t see that’. What you see, is often not the whole truth.

Consent and Drug Testing For High School Rugby

At the end of the day, these teenagers are still very young and very naive. The boys and girls at that age are impressionable and are certainly hungry to succeed. For a few, the fear of failure is a big influence as well.

Note: the proposed test are only for the boys First XV Top Four championship only, and not the Girls or the Boys Coed teams tournament.

Should consent be given before drug testing before New Zealand’s top school sides goes ahead? Maybe, but you can see both sides of the argument. It is at the end of the day, when fans and commentators realize we are talking about competition at the highest level, that the rewards are also high. Even at this age grade, consent should not be the primary question.

At least, the conversation has been brought out of the school halls and gymnasiums. On the field, the ball is still the focus. Off of it, player welfare and education is paramount.

What do you think? Has it all been taken too far or is it the right thing to do?

Michael Pulman is a editor for Last Word On Rugby. The views expressed in this column don’t necessarily reflect those of LWOR or the Last Word On Sports network. 


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