A new book by journalist Pierre Ballester – coming out on the 5th of March – is already sending shock waves throughout the world of Rugby Union. From amphetamines in the 1980s to the less detectable substances of today, it tells tales of a sport compromised by big money and fuelled by drugs
Right in the middle of the Six Nations, here’s something that could shake up the French pack as surely as the Welsh team will do this coming weekend:
Journalist Pierre Ballester is no stranger to either controversy or doping. He collaborated with our own David Walsh (soon to be played on-screen by Chris O’Dowd in an upcoming biopic by Stephen Frears) to write the book “L.A. Confidentiel”. The book attempted to expose Lance Armstrong’s cheating shenanigans and was published in 2004 by La Martinière. The same pair also wrote “Le Sale Tour” (The Dirty Tour) on Armstrong’s comeback period, when the famously doped-up cyclist went on to cheat his way to further Tour de France tainted glory.This time, the drugs in question are those allegedly being administered to rugby players for the last 30 years and more. If what Ballester says in his explosive new book “Rugby à Charges, L’Enquête Choc” (Loosely translated as “Loaded Rugby; the Shock Enquiry”) is be believed, then the world of Rugby Union – professionalised since 1995 – is on the verge of an implosion of shame similar to what has become of the world of cycling.
French weekly L’Express yesterday published extracts from the upcoming book. Drawing on interviews with several people in the world of rugby, the shocking accounts bear witness to a sport where drug-enhanced performances have become the norm and which have been around for longer than many would have dared to imagine.
The book, according to L’Express, is not a damning indictment on the world of rugby but rather a plea to save a “magnificent sport” from destroying itself from the inside. Ballester’s book brings the reader backstage in modern-day Rugby Union, taking them through a world populated by players with questionable muscle structure, dodgy nutritional supplements, fallacious prescriptions, out-of-date controls, directors under too much time pressure, guru-like physical trainers and, above all, bodies that make you wonder how they can possibly withstand the ever-increasing demands and the increasingly violent collisions.
The various products involved have also been evolving over the years: after the era of high doses of amphetamines allegedly consumed by the French XV during the 1980s, the trend was for the use of more complex substances that were more difficult to detect.
Jacques Mombet is a man of much experience in the world of French rugby. Having been team doctor of Agen during its golden period from 1960 to 1975, he subsequently became team doctor of the French national team from ’75 to ’95, going on to act as President of the Medical Commission of the French Rugby Federation. Today, he’s an active member of the expert committee of the AFLD (Agence Française de Lutte contre le Dopage/ French Anti-Doping Agency). A man surely with his finger on the pulse of the problem, he also played rugby until he broke his sternum after a career-ending fall on a pebbly pitch. Those early days, he says, were the best times, when life was lived “as if in a dream”.
“Amphetamines have always existed in rugby and other sports,” says Mombet. “In the 1970s, whole teams used to take them, while others didn’t. I remember a championship match – between Fleurance and Marmande I think – during which the referee really got freaked out! He had to stop the match!
“They weren’t forbidden,” asserts the rugby man (although they were by that stage – officially, at least). “In any case, they were everywhere – it wasn’t difficult to get some. Of course, you have to remember the context of all this… At that time, the sport was nothing like it is today: no anti-doping agency, no prevention. That’s how it was at that time.”
Mombet also makes mention of the fact that the national team were not exempt from such practices:
“As its use was pretty widespread, I also saw it in the national squad. Each of them had their little pill in front of their plate during the pre-match meal. It was like that at every match. Mostly it was Captagon, sometimes they took Maxiton.”
“At all the matches?” asks Ballester.“It was systematic.”
“They all took amphetamines?”
“They were free to take them or not as they wished.”
“But what about the likes of Blanco, Sella, Berbizier that you hold in great esteem?
“No – not them. Or at least if they did, it would have been rare. But remember what I said about the normalisation of amphetamine-taking that existed at the time?”
“What do you mean by ‘very rare’?”
“Well, that depended on the matches and on their circumstances. If the match was an important one; if there was revenge grudge, for example… it would be especially the forwards who would be involved because of the clash that awaited them in the scrums; the backs, less so.”
“Do you have a particular match in mind?”
“Yes – the one where that was most visible: You might remember the France/New Zealand match in Nantes in 1986? The Blacks (sic) had just dominated us a week before in Toulouse and, well… then they got themselves a hiding.”
“But who gave them the drugs?”
“The doctor, of course”
“In other words… you?”
“No, the other doctor (i.e. the late Jean Pène, who died in 2003). I told them that they wouldn’t get any from me; I forbade them.”
“But why didn’t you give them some, seeing as its use was so widespread?”
“It wasn’t in my nature to do so. You could say it was a case of principle, I think… That match marked a turning point – things evolved from there. The All-Blacks realised that their opponents, unrecognisable from the previous week, were doped up. So they brought the case discreetly to the attention of the Board (the IRB), who alerted the Ministry of Sport, who in turn brought the (French Rugby) Federation up to speed on the matter. I think that it was then that the ban on the usage of amphetamines in rugby was activated. Also, it was around that time that the anti-doping measures first came into force around the French national team, as well as more regular controls being introduced at club level. It stopped soon after that.”
“If this complaint was passed onto the French Federation, that means that its directors knew that amphetamines were being used?”
“Yes, of course. Everybody had known it for a long time.”
“Even Albert Ferrasse, the then President of the FFR?”
“Yes, he was up to speed on the matter. But he put complete trust in Pène, with whom he was very friendly… I know I’m repeating myself but at that time, there wasn’t the same approach as you have now. And having trust in someone also means that you closed your eyes to a certain extent.”
“I wasn’t team doctor that day, but I was officiating on behalf of the Medical Commission of the Federation. During the hours before kick-off, there was a question about a doping control. Word of this indiscretion reached the ears of the South African staff. About an hour before kick-off, their doctor accosts me in the corridors of the dressing rooms. He takes out of his briefcase a sheaf of papers. They were on-order prescriptions. There were at least a dozen of them.
“At that time there wasn’t yet the system of authorisation of use for therapeutic purposes. So, the doctors could write a prescription to order, which would authenticate the usage of forbidden products. Well, when he gave me that pile, I don’t deny that I was more than a bit ticked off. If you get one or two, that might work, but a dozen? Something certainly wasn’t right about that… I think that day was the most I had ever seen!”
The South African team went out and played with their doctor’s approval. They won the game emphatically (see top pic), winning by 52 points to 10.
“Rugby à Charges, L’Enquête Choc” (Editions de la Martinière) hits book shops in France next week on March 5th.