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The Sydney Morning Herald


Date: 11/07/1998
Words: 1878
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Page: 35
Tina Turner talked up their manliness but not all footballers are what they seem. JENNIE CURTIN looks at how steroids are putting the bulk into rugby league.

IT'S September, the end of a long league season, so the coach says to his players: Go away, have a rest, relax, recover. I don't want to see you for a couple of months.

Some take holidays, others spend time with their families. And then some find their way to gymnasiums with certain reputations. There, with little difficulty, they secure their vials of anabolic steroids and begin an intensive weight program.

If, by chance in the later months of the year, drug testers come to the club to collect some random samples, there's no-one home. The coach apologises, but he just doesn't know where his players are, he won't see them until the new year.

Come December, most will return carrying an extra four or five kilograms, sometimes even more. For the majority, it will be excess baggage, a bit of over- indulgence coupled with less exercise.

But a few will be heavier without the added fat. Bigger and bulkier, they will boast of having really hit the weights over the summer.

And by the time drug-testing comes around again, their systems are steroid-free.

You won't get too many arguments against such a scenario in rugby league. The question is, to which era does it belong? Players from the recent past have no doubt it occurred in their day, such as Wayne Pearce, a celebrated Test player from the 1980s and current coach of Balmain.

"I think it was more widespread in the late '80s and early '90s when drug testing of players was minimal, at a token level, and you could get steroids from your GP," he says.

Pearce "had my suspicions" about one particular club in the late '80s, a side he is not prepared to name.

"It was because of the size of the players, very big, and anecdotal evidence from people involved with them. Certainly I and some of my teammates thought so."

Phil Gould, who played a century of first-grade games for a number of sides until 1986, when he turned to coaching (the victorious NSW State of Origin sides of 1994 and 1995 and Sydney City since 1995), was similarly sceptical of some body shapes he encountered.

"There were rumours and you suspected it, though maybe I was naive because I never saw it first-hand."

Gould's experience illustrates just how far and fast the game has moved in 20 years. When he first started playing, in the mid-1970s, no-one did weight training.

Gradually, the culture changed. First some sporadic gym work in the off-season, then a few weights midweek until, by the end of Gould's playing career, endless reps of bench presses, bicep curls and the like were as much a part of training as sprints and ball-skill work.

The first known case of steroid use in league was that of Graham Olling, a Parramatta and Australian prop, who admitted in 1977 that he had taken the drugs under medical supervision to bulk up.

The experiment had helped him gain 6.5 kilograms in the off season.

Olling told a Sydney newspaper in February, 1977: "I'm doing the same training this year as I did last season but the difference is my physique and weight have all increased. I am able to train hard for six days weekly without becoming tired. I can also lift much heavier weights and many more repetitions than I could before I began taking the steroids. I genuinely feel my fitness and condition is much better but I may now begin to cut back the dosage because I have achieved the weight I wanted."

It must be remembered that this is at a time when steroids were not illegal in league, although they had been banned by the International Olympic Committee in 1974. They had also made headlines in 1976 when eight weightlifters at the Montreal Olympic Games tested positive.

Olling innocently and candidly articulated for the first time what was to become part of the ethos of the game: heavier equals better.

League has always paraded its physicality. Advertising campaigns have highlighted the crunching tackles, big forward meets big forward head-on with violent consequences.

Even today, the game is promoted to the tune of "I get knocked down, and I get up again", accompanied by footage of the most bruising of clashes.

One of the most successful campaigns had Tina Turner dancing with some very well-built blokes. Not only simply the best; simply the bulkiest, the burliest, too.

These were guys expected to confront and stop 100 kg opponents charging at them. For 80 solid minutes each week. For 20-odd consecutive weeks.

As the bruises and sprains and strains piled up, it's hardly surprising that some sought artificial help to build a body able to withstand such punishment.

Steroids weren't instantly regarded as cheating, however. In fact, it was not until the mid-1980s that random tests to detect drug use were introduced in the sport.

Stimulants, such as pseudo- ephedrine, were commonly uncovered, as well as cannabis.

Tommy Raudonikis, who has been close to the game for about three decades now, recalls that when he started playing in the late 1960s, "the only thing around was the stuff that truck-drivers took to stay awake".

Such products, like No-Doze, increased the heart rate, sped up the system and heightened awareness.

Raudonikis played for Australia in 20 Tests from 1971-80, as well as playing for and inspiring working-class clubs such as Western Suburbs and Newtown.

He did both without any stimulants. "I just trained myself. I was a mad trainer. We did some gym work but not nearly as much as they do now."

In all his years as a player, and later as a coach in both Queensland and NSW, he has never had contact with steroids.

"We knew they were out there but I've never known anybody who's taken a drug. . . I think it's an unfair advantage. You've got to do with what God gave you. It [football] can get like government - once you get power and money into it, you get corruption."

Corruption might be too strong a word for it but there's no doubt policing of drug use was fairly lax for many years.

The drug tests themselves, for example, were often so random as to be non-existent. Off-season testing didn't occur. And rules were bent.

One player, not a steroid man but a frequent user of recreational drugs, claimed he fooled a drug test several years ago by using a plastic sack of "clean" (drug-free) urine he had kept for the occasion.

He persuaded the tester that he could only produce a sample if he were allowed the privacy of a cubicle. Once inside, he filled the specimen bottle. The player was smart enough to have kept the bag in his armpit to bring it to the right temperature - he knew that some had been caught out handing over cold samples to the testers.

His test was negative, despite the cocaine he knew was in his bloodstream.

The player wouldn't get away with such a scam today. The so-called "chaperones" from the Australian Sports Drug Agency (ASDA) who have been mass testing all first-graders in the last few weeks sit with each player until the bottle is filled.

In a decade of testing in league, there were no steroid positives. The likely reason is that players simply stopped taking the drug long enough before testing (the old time frame was three months) for all traces to be out of their system.

But the National Rugby League's new policy of off-season testing, combined with more sophisticated equipment which can detect minute remains of drugs in the body long after use (ASDA understandably won't reveal exactly how long), will make it tougher for cheats.

League commentators now tend to fall into two camps. The Wayne Pearce line goes that steroid abuse peaked some years ago. Optimists, like him, say public abhorrence of drug cheats and increased testing combined to wipe it out in any widespread sense.

The pessimists say dishonest players have gone beyond steroids to undetectable substances, such as human growth hormone.

The recent positives for steroids would indicate the truth lies somewhere in between.

The real sadness about these results is that they have come at a time when rugby league needed to reinvent itself.

This year, the first of a truly unified competition, was to have been the start of a new era.

The well-documented civil war had taken its toll; fans had been alienated by the gross player salaries, with fewer bothering to a support a team.

The game may well have reached its nadir last October, when ASDA's annual report showed league topped the list of drug abusers, beating even the notorious weightlifting, with 13 positives from 693 tests.

Three were for anabolic steroids, six for stimulants, three for cannabis and one for a masking agent.

The executive director of ASDA, Natalie Howson, spoke the thoughts of many when she said at the time: "It is naive to think that in such a professional sport where there is so much at stake that players wouldn't use drugs to enhance their performance."

Undoubtedly, the emergence of full-time professional footballers is part of the current problem.

Pressures to perform are enormous. Look at how many of the current positives cite the need to recover from an injury as the reason for taking drugs.

And all those extra dollars can easily buy the best possible drugs. Even so, and despite the alarming results in recent weeks, there's no real fear that we're likely to return to the bad old days.

Pearce says: "Back then, with the testing quite random, the risks of getting caught were quite minimal. Now, the risks are very, very high and the penalties are quite severe."

The non-smoking, non-drinking Pearce is as famous for his healthy lifestyle as his football. It bothers him that the actions of a few can bring disrepute to the many but he is pleased that the NRL is finally taking a strong stance.

"They could have swept it under the carpet but they've decided to take some short-term pain for some longer-term gain," he says.

Pearce is almost pleased, too, that such high-profile players, like Robbie O'Davis and Rodney Howe, have been snared.

"These players are role models for others. It'll send a message to the younger players that they just can't do it."

Gould also sees a positive side: "It once and for all ends the rumour and suspicion. It shows the players, and the public, that drugs won't be tolerated in the game. I think it's good we've got it out in the open. I honestly believe, and I certainly hope, that we're 95-99 per cent drug-free."

As for the Newcastle Knights, the fairytale story of league last year, it's time for some soul-searching.

Why three positives from the one club? The Herald's Roy Masters, himself a former coach, suggested this week that one of the major problems is that the Knights don't have an in-house gym.

The club publicly acknowledges the need for a reorganisation of training programs and drug education of the players. If Newcastle are to retain, or regain, the elevated status that accompanied last year's premiership, they must translate those words into action without delay.

The list keeps getting bigger, too

IT IS a list no-one wants to be part of but one which unfortunately continues to grow - the dishonour roll of rugby league's steroid users. On it, we find Corin Ridding, who tested positive in 1995 to anabolic steroids which he took to recover from a hamstring injury.

Ridding, then a 22-year-old playing for the Western Reds, said in a newspaper interview: "There were a lot of blokes at the club competing for first grade positions and I didn't want to fall too far behind them. This was my big opportunity to make it and I was determined to start the year in first grade."

He said he was advised by someone with a medical background that steroids would help the healing so he took them. "I knew at the time that I was doing the wrong thing. But I took them out of desperation more than anything."

Ridding was suspended for 22 matches, reduced on appeal to 16.

The Newcastle forward Stephen Crowe admitted last month that he had tested positive in 1996. Crowe said his six-week course of steroids had been medically supervised and was taken only after three unsuccessful groin operations. He wasn't playing at the time and, when he was tested four months later, thought the drug would be out of his system. It wasn't. He was reprimanded.

Clinton Schifcofske, from the South Queensland Crushers, returned a positive last year and immediately imposed on himself a six-week suspension. This was later upheld by the drugs tribunal. He now plays with Parramatta.

Jeremy Schloss tested positive after taking steroids before he signed with the Gold Coast last year.

He said he was a struggling player who needed an edge. He got the drugs from a contact in a gym and took them for about two weeks, adding two or three kilograms in weight, until overcome by guilt.

Schloss was reprimanded - his contrition said to have helped his cause - and later played State of Origin for Queensland.

This year's additions have been Robbie O'Davis, Australian and Newcastle fullback, who took a dietary supplement containing a banned steroid. Out for 22 matches.

His teammate, Wayne Richards, used the steroid stanozolol to get over an ankle injury. Also out for 22 matches and subsequently cut by his Newcastle club.

The Test and Melbourne Storm prop Rodney Howe said he took stanozolol to help recover from a knee reconstruction. On Thursday night, Howe was also banned for 22 matches.

The jury is still out on Newcastle's State of Origin winger, Adam MacDougall, who has tested positive to stimulants but will have to undergo further tests to check an illegal testosterone level.

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