Sports

Secondary school rugby players to be tested for drugs

For the first time in NZ school sports history, players at this year’s National 1st XV semi-finals will be subject to anti-doping testing, reports Scotty Stevenson.

The New Zealand Secondary School Sports Council (NZSSSC) and Drug Free Sport NZ (DFSNZ) have advised school principals of their intention to carry out anti-doping testing at this year’s 1st XV national top four tournament – an unprecedented move in high school sport in New Zealand.

Yesterday, principals of the top rugby schools in the country were advised of the plan via an email from NZSSSC CEO Garry Carnachan. One spoken to by The Spinoff today said the plan poses “a consenting nightmare” given players are in some cases as young as 14 or 15.

In an accompanying letter from DFSNZ Chief Executive Graeme Steele, it is noted that players under 18 will have the ability to be accompanied by parents or other representatives during all elements of the test. But DFSNZ says it does not require consent to test athletes who are participating in any sport that is a signee to New Zealand Sport’s Anti-Doping Rules – and New Zealand Rugby is.

A spokesperson told The Spinoff that while it is the first time DFSNZ has tested in a secondary schools event, they can test any athlete of any age at any time and have in the past tested school-aged athletes.

It seems clear that there is a genuine worry that some high school rugby players in New Zealand could be taking banned substances, either due to a lack of education around “extensive and uncontrolled supplement use” or, worse, through the use of anabolic steroids.

The NZSSSC points to research from Otago University that says there is knowledge that anabolic steroid use is occurring in “comparable environments overseas, notably South Africa and the UK” and says DFSNZ has identified elements within the schools rugby environment which indicate “a significant potential for doping to occur.”

Steele adds in his letter that he is “hopeful our approach will receive the full support of the school community and all parents who see sport as a valuable tool for the development of their child.”

The NZSSSC says it supports an education approach, but also knows that as New Zealand Rugby is has  committed to New Zealand Sport’s Anti-doping rules. If DFSNZ undertakes tests that return positive for banned substances, they will have to follow the New Zealand Sport Anti-Doping processes accordingly.

It is understood that that schools will all have to go through a ‘Good Clean Sports – Youth’ workshop before the national tournament, which is scheduled to take place in Palmerston North in September. This gives schools little more than a month to schedule the workshop, address the myriad issues around parental consent, and learn about the specific substances that will be tested for.

According to DFSNZ, those workshops have been available to schools since February and, remarkably, only five of the 24 schools still in contention for the national Top 4 tournament have taken up the chance to take part since that time. According to sources, one high profile rugby school said it wanted nothing to do with the workshop or the education programme around it.

The Top 4 testing plan, as outlined, will limit the range of substances being tested for, and will “focus on substances with long term health consequences for adolescents and limits the risk of inadvertent positive tests.” Only players from boys’ schools will be tested at the tournament, which also features co-ed and girls’ school teams.

This approach was championed by Carnachan in his email to principals, in which he says, “Given the potential for a player to test positive and the high stakes of doing so, NZSSSC has worked extensively with DFSNZ and NZR to ensure that the risk of such an outcome for those who are not setting out to break the rules is minimised.”

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