Ex player doubts NRL is free from drug use
Ex-NRL and Super League player Adrian Vowles says it would be naive to think Australia's professional football codes are clean from performance enhancing drugs.
As the fallout from Lance Armstrong's meteoric demise continues to engulf cycling, the former Queensland State of Origin player said rugby league, as well as union and AFL, shouldn't be sanctimonious enough to think they free from performance-enhancing drugs despite beefed up testing regimes.
Vowles, who played for the Maroons in 1994, racked up 79 top flight games (Gold Coast, North Queensland) and 192 in the English Super League, said he was never directly offered steroids or growth hormones during his career but there was wide suspicion in playing circles surrounding certain players, some of whom performed at the very highest levels.
"I just think over the years, as in any sport, there are players you may have thought have been on some sort of performance-enhancing drug. There are blokes I've played footy against - I'm not saying they are or they aren't - but I know how hard it is to train and be strong and put weight on," Vowles said.
"As players, you get a sense of it. You know. Nobody comes out and says anything or accuses anyone. But I'm sure there is and if we didn't think there was, we'd be blind. That's not a blight against rugby league either. That's just how it is. I don't have any time for drug cheats at all.
"I think if you go through time, there would be a fair few [players who didn't get caught]. And probably would have played for their state and country, I guess.
"It's a competitive sport and when it's a competitive sport, people will take short cuts. If people have success with short cuts, they keep taking shortcuts. That's the way I see it."
Rugby league has a stringent testing regime but it is the use of human growth hormone, which is more difficult to detect, which Vowles believes has been and remains a significant problem.
England hooker Terry Newton became one of the first athletes to record a positive test for HGH in February of 2010 and was given a two-year-ban.
HGH can only be found via blood tests, which the NRL began administering in 2010. It increased that testing at the beginning of this year in a bid to be 'proactive' in their battle against the substance.
"It is not the result of any new threat or concern but it does reflect the way testing programs are changing in all sports," an NRL spokesman said at the time.
"The majority of our testing has been urine-based and that is still substantial."
But blood tests are less regular than urine tests and HGH remains an elusive substance, even if the NRL hasn't always been convinced it is of great assistance to rugby league players.
Testing for synthetic growth hormones has been done at the Olympics since 2004 but the standard 'isoform' test is difficult because the body restores the natural balance of the hormone within a day or two.
A new test was implemented during for the London Games that can detect HGH abusers up to three weeks after injecting. It's been a welcome initiative, given only eight athletes worldwide have returned positive tests and none at the Olympics.
In 2010, a doctor told The Australian newspaper on the condition of anonymity that players in the NRL were using growth hormones to improve power, condition and injury recuperation.
"One would be naive to think it doesn't happen. It would make them bigger and stronger ... anabolic steroids are easy to pick up with testing because it's in your system for a long time," the doctor said.
"Growth hormone is much harder to detect because it's a natural substance anyway."
The words of Vowles would appear to back that point of view. And he found support on Twitter from Bobby Goulding, the former England halfback and Super League great who replied: "It's frightening what I know pal and probably you."
Goulding also tweeted to Vowles: "If me and u know mate then some people are turning blind eye."
Vowles, who played from 1993-96 in the NRL and 1997-2005 in England, said whispers of human growth hormone increased the longer he played and many players suspected others, especially if their body shape or athletic performance underwent dramatic improvement.
"I played in a couple of eras where I thought at the start, it wouldn't have been human growth hormone but just plain steroids. In later years, human growth hormones, that was the whispers," Vowles said.
"Body shapes would change in certain players, also how many minutes they were able to play if they were a front rower, for example. I think it stands out.
"Testing, now they can knock on their door at 6 o'clock in the morning if they want. But if they're not testing blood, they're not going to get human growth hormone."