Good Luck, Good Planning Or Neither? - Australian Rugby Keeps Its Nose Clean

Don't mention it too loudly, but while Aussie Rules and Rugby League lurch from one peptide fueled drugs crisis to another, Rugby has kept its nose clean, and that's not just a reference to Wendell Sailor whose Rugby career ended some years back when he was done for cocaine.

You certainly won't hear Bill Pulver, the CEO of the Australian Rugby Union, gloating. He may have been on stage in February for the release of  the Australian Crime Commission's report into drugs in sport with the heads of all the other Australian football codes, but Pulver is not going to risk ending up with egg on his face if one of Australian Rugby's elite players does fail a drugs test, even if that's never happened (bar Sailor).

So what is it about Aussie Rules and Rugby League that differs from Rugby in terms of artificial stimulants (in Australia at least - overseas there are a few examples of Rugby players failing drugs tests)?

Here's a few theories:

Money
Quite simply, there's more of it in both Rugby League and Aussie Rules. Not necessarily at the pointy end, but if you ignore the Wallabies then there is no competition between what a competent Rugby player at provincial level (think Tom Carter for example) can earn and what a League or Rules player who's a regular in first grade gets paid. Performance enhancing drugs in contact sports aren't really about boosting performance at all but more about speeding up the recovery time from injury. If the financial penalty from not being out on the park is greater, then the incentive to cheat is going to be greater.
The lesson - Be careful what you wish for. Rugby briefly flirted with mega payments to players when it first went professional and nearly bankrupted itself. In retrospect, this was a blessing in disguise. Today's modest payments are keeping expectations and temptations in check. Players chasing a dollar can go overseas if that's their major motivation. 
Numbers
There are 5 fully professional Rugby teams in Australia, the Super Rugby teams. Grade players need side jobs to get by. There are 16 National Rugby League (NRL) teams and 18 Australian Football League (AFL) teams. It's simple statistics that the more players exposed to drugs, the more likely that one or more of them will be tempted, coerced or tricked into partaking.
The lesson - Australia struggles to support 5 Super Rugby teams as it is. A sixth will not only stretch the talent pool further but expose more players, in particular more fringe players, to a performance culture that does not suit them.
Education and background
It's a stereotype, but Rugby's heartland is private schools and some elite Government selective schools. It's the snob factor on which the sport was established, and the reason why it managed to survive for as long as it could despite being amateur. That Rugby is now a fully professional sport has changed little, at the end of the day, Rugby is still mostly played at private schools and generally speaking, private schools provide a more thorough education ('better' being a subjective term). So while Rugby players may not be smarter than League players, for the most part they are more likely to come from higher socio-economic backgrounds where recreational drugs are more of a viable temptation and the pressure to boost physical performance to counter any perceived or real socio-economic disadvantage is less.
The lesson - Rugby needs to expand its supporter base if it is to survive and thrive. But hand in hand with taking Rugby to new audiences and new player pools needs to be an awareness of the different values and cultures of those audiences and potential players.
Luck
Never discount the fluke. If Stephen Dank had bumped into the right Rugby person at the right time and they started chatting, who knows where it may have ended up. And if Rugby had turned professional a decade earlier, when Dank and his methods started making headways into League and Aussie Rule in the early to mid 90s, then what's to say Rugby teams may not have sought his services? It's all speculation of course, but all the other factors listed above are potentially less relevant or irrelevant if chaos theory had dictated a chance meeting, subsequent events and alternate futures.
The lesson - There isn't one. It's luck, you can't control it. Just be grateful for it and carry on.

Comments

Maul-burnian said…
Well, we can't be too careful, and I say return rugby to a fully amateur sport once again. That way, no one will have the necesasry funds, and the only illicit activity will be the occasional meat tray or brown paper bag handed over after the match. Ahh, the good old days ...
Saviour said…
Perhaps Rugby players are in fact so close to the illegal performance enhancing drug scene that they also attract the best masking drugs?
James Hird said…
any vacancies in Rugby Union over the next 12 months?

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