Don’t expect the National Rugby League or any other football administration to gain any comfort from the continuing, and wholly depressing, Ben Cousins saga.

The revelations by Andrew Johns, rugby league’s equivalent of Cousins in terms of football skills and profile, that he had a long history of drug taking during his rugby league career shook the code to its foundations – and delivered an overdue reality check.

That Johns didn’t go off the rails as comprehensively and as publicly as Cousins is more a matter of luck than anything else. On the basis of what he has so far revealed – and more will be revealed when his biography is released next month – he was regularly as high as a kite and suffering from serious depression at the same time.

The AFL and the West Coast Eagles have been weak and negligent in their handling of issues surrounding Cousins, but were the Newcastle Knights any more diligent in regard to Johns and his problems? I think not.

Only this week, the new CEO of the Knights cleared the club of any neglect of duty in regard to Johns. Nonsense. There were only “rumours” that Johns was taking drugs. Yet his doctor, who also treats other Knights players, was aware of his problem for years, and was treating him for it.

Johns was able to get away with drug taking because he knew the Knights had the weakest drug testing “regime” in the NRL. He also knew he was indispensable. When you look at the whole Cousins saga the main difference is that his travails have been played out in public, while those of Johns were kept secret, at least until very recently.

The only way football codes and clubs and indeed any sporting body can address drug abuse among players is to adopt the uncompromising “zero tolerance” policy a minority of NRL clubs have pursued in recent years.

The new NRL policy, which the Federal Government has endorsed, is not a zero tolerance policy but closer to one than the current, discredited “three strikes” AFL policy. The latest Cousins debacle ensures that the AFL will have to toughen its laws by the end of the year.

The one NRL club which can hold its head high when it comes to drug abuse is the North Queensland Cowboys. It has the most comprehensive testing regime in the NRL, and probably in any code. Its players can be tested anywhere, anytime – and most of its first grade are tested at least ten times a year. Several other clubs come close, but many have been reluctant to go anywhere near the Cowboys hard line.

What the Cowboys alone have done is support a tough testing regime with equally tough penalties. The one player who tested positive to a drug – and not on a match day – Mitchell Sargent was sacked immediately.

Unless, and until, every club and code administration takes that uncompromising approach there will be players who will chance their luck – as Andrew Johns did successfully for close to a decade!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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