Friday, 1 April 2011

Rugby News : Sale prop's ban criticised as 'wholly unacceptable'

The hopelessly complex problem of dealing fairly and effectively with rugby players who test positive for banned substances after taking what they believed were perfectly innocent products recommended by their own medical advisors flared up again yesterday when a four-month ban imposed on the Sale prop Karena Wihongi came in for heavy criticism. Damien Hopley, chief executive of the Rugby Players' Association, said he was "extremely concerned at the inconsistency" of recent punishments and accused the Twickenham disciplinarians who dealt with the case of "a lack of empathy wholly unacceptable in professional sport".

Wihongi, a 31-year-old New Zealander, was suspended by the Rugby Football Union on 9 March after traces of the stimulant methylhexaneamine were found in a sample given after the Premiership game at Newcastle in early January. As he has been unable to play for Sale, or indeed train with them, since confirmation of his test result, he can return to rugby at the end of May rather than the start of July. In reality, it makes no difference. His season is over.

At the beginning of the year, two Springboks – the wing Bjorn Basson and the hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle – were exonerated by a South African Rugby Union panel after testing positive for precisely the same substance. Indeed, the SARU chief executive, Jurie Roux, apologised to the players. "The banned stimulant was in a supplement given to the players in the warm-up before the Test against Ireland," he said at the time. "The product had been used by the Springboks before, without any adverse analytical findings. No responsibility attaches to the players."

This case appears to have been strikingly similar, hence Hopley's allegation of inconsistency. Like the two South African players, Wihongi consumed a supplement sanctioned by a member of his team's medical staff, although bizarrely, he took only a swig during the half-time interval, having mistaken an energy drink for a bottle of water. The tribunal members decided he had "closed his mind" to the possibility that the bottle might have contained something rather different, although they admitted they had "some sympathy" for the player, saying that both the club and the product suppliers shared some of the responsibility.

Yesterday, Sale gave voice to their frustration. "When the product in question was supplied to the club it was issued with a batch test certificate that showed no traces of any banned substance," said a spokesman. "The ingredients had previously been checked and all had been cleared. The player took a product that, without his knowledge, had been contaminated."

The RFU kept the case secret for a fortnight to give both Wihongi and Sale time to decide on any appeal. The Sale spokesman confirmed that there would be no appeal, but said: "Karena retains the full support of the club."

Meanwhile, the Scottish Rugby Union has launched a performance review following a series of setbacks at club and international level. "The last three months have been bitterly disappointing after what occurred last year," said Gordon McKie, the governing body's chief executive. While McKie stressed that the position of Andy Robinson, who recently agreed a four-year extension to his contract as national coach, was entirely safe, he added: "It's incumbent on me, Andy and others to do something about the situation. Together we have a resolve to tackle some areas that are not right."

Scotland would have finished bottom of the Six Nations table but for a last-round victory over Italy, while the country's two professional clubs, Edinburgh and Glasgow, are way off the pace in the Magners League and have failed, once again, to qualify for the knock-out stage of the Heineken Cup.
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