NIL BY MOUTH
There will be First XV players tempted to take supplements which claim they can help athletes become stronger and bigger. But everyone needs to understand the risks and dangers such products present. GREGOR PAUL with the story.
Supplement taking is popular in First XV rugby. But there are hidden dangers and players need to know what they can and can’t do.
The supplements industry is a minefield. Almost literally in that some products probably could be explosive so randomly and inexpertly have they been put together.
Not everyone will care about that, though. The danger of supplements is that they make the most tempting promises and who doesn’t love thinking they are getting ahead of everyone else?
This is a largely unregulated market where manufacturers of protein and whey powders can pretty much claim what they like. This is a business that is without question a triumph of style over substance. It is the marketing men, not the chemists, who have the tough job.
The truth, unpalatable as it may be to a billion dollar industry preying on those who have a clear idea of what they want to see in the mirror, is that the bulk of products, at best, offer users infinitesimal physical gains.
There is, as much as some would love to believe it, no magic potion out there – not one that is legal or safe - that can turn a 75kg inside back into a 95kg inside back in the space of a term. Only genetics, smart training and good nutrition can spark a transition like that. And it will take a lot longer than one term.
That won’t stop the marketers from giving the impression their product can add bulk and muscle mass in the space of weeks. That won’t stop the marketing blurbs from almost terrifying young players into using their products for fear of being left behind.
“The people who produce protein powder, they don’t put it out as dried milk – which is what it essentially is,” says chief executive of Drug Free Sport, Graeme Steel. “They call it things such as ‘ultra powder’ or ‘mega whey powder’ and promote that it contains added ingredients as a point of difference.
“But there are not many products out there that make much difference.”
Still, the picture painted is so alluring and apparently devoid of risk, young players are going to be tempted.
First XV has an alarming number of preconditions that could foster a widespread culture of drug taking. There are disparities in physical maturation between the boys and in a sport where size matters, those who don’t have it, will desperately want it.
The profile of First XV is growing – rapidly – and with players such as Rieko Ioane and Tevita Li picking up Super Rugby contracts while still at school, professional careers can appear to be in reach for many of the boys.
Such claims can appear like needless scaremongering and often lead to those who make them being ridiculed or shot down as wildly fanciful. But not this time.
There is no substitute for hard work and healthy living. Always seek expert advice about any supplements or products you are tempted to take.’ VICTOR VITO
Those who say there’s no chance of drug taking becoming systemic in New Zealand need to look at what’s happened in South Africa. Drug taking is most definitely a problem in their school rugby programmes. And if it’s a problem there, why not here?
Because New Zealand is above that sort of thing? Because New Zealanders have a deeper respect for fair play and ethics? Because New Zealanders are made of some kind of tougher moral fabric?
If the match-fixing cricket scandal last year taught anyone anything, it was surely that New Zealanders are just as susceptible to corruption as everyone else. So there is no moral code that will keep drug taking out of schools – only relentless education on the subject will do that.
Steel, says of First XV: “The pressure is on these young kids to perform which they may be prepared for physically and technically but not culturally and psychologically.
“I think the schools themselves need to have a sense of responsibility around helping these kids holistically.”
Steel’s concerns aren’t confined to doping, but that is, potentially, one of the areas to which under prepared and under resourced kids could turn. “I think the most important thing is that kids understand that supplements are not a benign thing you can take without concern.
“Players need to seek expert advice about supplements and that expert advice is not going to come from the person who is selling the products.”
Steel is a little wary of how Drug Free Sport is currently viewed by schools across New Zealand. The agency is conducting research into supplement use within schools: not for sinister means, however.
The intention of collecting data is not to out schools for bad practice or any failing to inform and support kids in their rugby and sporting programmes, but to draw a detailed picture so future education and advice can be effectively shaped.
The schoolboy rugby landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years. Super Rugby teams have started to recruit directly from schools; there is live TV coverage and schools have invested heavily in coaching staff and resources.
Rugby is not necessarily just a game. Now, it is a genuine career option and from being an escape from the curriculum, it is now viewed as part of it.
First XV is all-consuming. Few kids play more than one sport because to make the top team in rugby, the training expectation is so high there is no room for anything else.
The boys aren’t paid, but they are professional in every other way and some schools may have been slow to react to this changed reality. They have, in some cases, been slow to accept they have been complicit in building this high pressure, winning at all costs environment.
Schools use rugby as a recruitment tool – a means to showcase the values they believe they foster in their pupils and the pressure can be intense for the young men involved.
Steel believes that there are some schools that are on top of this issue and are providing pupils with strong and valuable advice. There are others who aren’t.
Drug Free Sport’s longer term goal is to drive programmes that ensure all schools are able to educate and support their pupils appropriately.
Education and understanding is particularly needed in the area of pre-work out stimulants. These are the products that most concern Steel because they would appear to be the most popular within this age-group.
Drug Free Sport can only do so much to advise and educate young athletes and their coaches. There is a limit to its influence and the point Steel is most anxious to get across is that ultimately, responsibility on supplement use lies with the individual.
Ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law. If anyone is uncertain about a product – the best advise is don’t take it. Failing a drugs test is a serious and potentially career-ending business.
“A six-month ban is not the worst thing,” says Steel. “The process and the publicity around it – that’s the worst thing and what it puts the athlete and their family through.”
healthy diet There's no subsitute for a healthy balanced diet.