Drugs Are Bad: Does Rugby League Have A Problem?

Callum Walker

Following Zak Hardaker’s provisional suspension by the Rugby Football League (RFL) for failing a drugs test, the one question being banded around the rugby league fraternity is, does rugby league have a drugs problem?

For Hardaker, news of his failed drugs test could not have come at a worse time for either himself or his club, Castleford Tigers. Just two days before the Tigers would play in their maiden Grand Final, he was omitted from the Tigers’ squad for the highly-anticipated clash against Leeds Rhinos at Old Trafford. Hardaker’s failed test came after a Super 8s game against Leeds, his former club, on 8 September, and he could be suspended for at least two years as a result of his positive test.

Hardaker not alone

But Hardaker is not the first – and he certainly won’t be the last – to be sanctioned for the use of banned substances. On the 3rd August this year, mercurial but wayward talent, Rangi Chase, was suspended from all training and playing activities by the RFL under the regulations of the UK Anti-Doping Agency (UKAA) whilst he was plying his trade with Widnes Vikings – whom he had only signed a permanent deal with in July – after testing positive for cocaine. Likewise, just a day later, Wakefield Trinity prop Adam Walker was given the same treatment.

Both players had been tested in the wake of Trinity’s win over the Vikings on 14 July. The fact that two opponents from the same game had been found guilty, does generate suspicion that these two were not the only ones to have taken this Class A drug after the match. This is perhaps even more likely when considering that drug tests are often randomly conducted – only a few are tested because of tip-offs about certain players.

Although the outcome of both cases are still in limbo, as is Hardaker’s, the penalty will likely be a two-year ban – as a minimum. Wind the clock back to 2009 and Gareth Hock was banned for the same period following a positive drugs test for cocaine. More recently, Leigh hooker Sean Penkywicz was banned for taking a growth hormone in August 2015. Whether a rugby league supporter wants to admit it or not, drugs are becoming more and more of a problem in the sport that prides itself on being a “family game”.

“The game is rife with cocaine. I know of players, including some very high profile ones, who’ve taken it and anyone who says it’s not a problem in rugby league is telling lies. It’s a big social problem, it’s not just in rugby league, lots of sportsmen have taken it – but it’s a massive problem in our sport.”

– Rugby League legend, Garry Schofield.

How to treat offenders?

rugby league is caught in a dilemma, however. Does the sport continue down the track of its ‘State of Mind’ policy and help rehabilitate drug users to try to ensure it cannot grow, or, does it – as it has done in the past and is currently still doing – ban the players for a definite period of time and shun them from the sport altogether?

In February 2010, the then-Wakefield player, Terry Newton, was given a two-year ban from the sport after being found guilty of taking a human growth hormone. Just seven months later, he was tragically found dead, having hanged himself at his home in Orrell, Wigan. This preventable consequence was a result of Newton being tossed to the wayside, suddenly being removed from everything he had ever known as a sportsman.

Leniency is a no-no

Now, the governing body cannot take a lenient stance with regards to drugs; they are utterly disgusting and have no place in any sport, but, the way in which the RFL handles the increasingly important drugs situation needs to be scrutinised.

The sport does already do a great deal in terms of public education regarding the dangers of drug-taking and RFL representatives even advise teams before the season starts about the consequences of taking illegal substances.

But some, like Walker, Chase and Hardaker, simply do not listen and it paints the sport in a bad light. The publicity on the Monday of this week should have been focused on Wayne Bennett’s squad for the upcoming World Cup in November, but instead most of it was centred around the news of Zak Hardaker being suspended for failing a drugs test.

“It’s not great for the sport with two positive tests being revealed in successive days.

“It paints a negative picture and I’ve got no sympathy for either Rangi Chase or Adam Walker.
“The fact is, players nowadays should know better.

“There’s a lot of education in the sport about the dangers of drug use. The Rugby Football League send someone around every year to talk about drugs and the health and welfare issues involved.

“I don’t think we could be any better looked after. All players know the consequences of taking performance enhancing or recreational drugs and I don’t understand why anyone would do it.

“If you get caught it’s a two-year ban and that means a professional player losing his livelihood, as well as his reputation.”
– Carl Ablett, Leeds Rhinos.

Catastrophic effects

But why is drug use, particularly that of cocaine, becoming more frequent in rugby league? Not only does it adversely effect players’ health which should be a priority, rugby league players stand to lose their trade for up to four years. A player found guilty loses their income; their mortgages, bills and lifestyle are no longer supported by playing and earning from their chosen career path. A player with family commitments stands to lose everything for a selfish act.

Yet this does not – and has not – stopped players from taking them. With more thorough testing, there will inevitably be more and more stars being found guilty. But is it a problem exclusive to rugby league or society and sport in general? Since UK Anti-Doping formed in 2011, more athletes in rugby union and football have served suspensions relating to the stimulant found in cocaine than in rugby league.


And, in this day and age, drugs are sadly becoming more prevalent in societal circles, almost to the point at which they are used as commonly as cigarettes and alcohol. It also doesn’t help that rugby league players are often young, inexperienced with many reaping great financial reward that they think they have suddenly become ‘untouchable’.

“I had this with Rangi; I’ve no malice towards these lads because they’re just kids who’ve made mistakes and done something stupid. This is not a rugby league issue though, this is a society issue. He’s got issues, he’s always had issues and it’ll get to a point where he might have to make some decisions about lifestyle and what he does next.”

– Denis Betts, England Assistant Coach

“I wouldn’t say the sport has an issue with drugs – it’s like any sport really.”

– Luke Gale, Castleford Tigers.

Worldwide Rugby League issue

It is not just the British game that is suffering, though; the Australian NRL has had its fair share of unwanted exposure regarding the issue in question. In May of this year, Sydney Roosters’ three-quarter Shaun Kenny-Dowall had been caught in possession of cocaine at a Sydney nightclub and subsequently had his contract revoked by the club.

New Zealand captain, Jesse Bromwich, and Gold Coast Titans co-captain, Kevin Proctor, were also in the spotlight with allegations that they had been filmed taking illicit drugs following the Kiwis’ loss to the Kangaroos on in early May in Canberra. As a result, they were removed from the running for the All Blacks’ World Cup Squad. And, to make matter worse for the Australian game, Cronulla Sharks chairman Damien Keogh was forced to stand down after he was charged by police for allegedly possessing drugs when searched in Woolloomooloo, just a day later.

Are rugby league players just part of a societal problem or is it a problem becoming specific to the sport? It is both. More players are getting found out than ever before and more will continue to get found out purely because of how easy it is to now obtain drugs given their wide use in society.

Rugby league players take a battering each week, perhaps, this drug use is a way of ‘letting go’ from the rigours of training and match days.

But, this does not excuse it. Cocaine especially has a horrendous effect on the body and has ruined too many people’s lives in ordinary society. With the continued and increased help of the sport’s governing bodies, let’s hope that it never becomes as widespread in rugby league. The recent predicaments and the predicted acceleration of drug usage means, however, it could soon well prove to become too much of an overwhelming problem to tackle in the sport.

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