Bernard Lapasset (Gallo)
London - The Rugby World Cup starts this week with the sport facing new doping doubts and even its global chief Bernard Lapasset says banned substances are the biggest danger facing rugby.
World Rugby this month confirmed a two year drug ban against former South African hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle.
And revelations that French prosecutors are investigating pharmacists in Toulon, after being alerted by the country's anti-doping agency, emerged in the week that France left for their World Cup base in England.
The problem has also been acknowledged in the tournament's host country.
World Cup blood and urine tests are to be carried out by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD). It has refused to say how many tests will be carried out but it knows rugby well.
Of the 47 people on the UKAD banned list 16 are from rugby union and another 12 from rugby league.
Many of those banned in Britain and other rugby powers are still young. In New Zealand, Finn Hart-Strawbridge, 19, a former young New Zealand Barbarian, was banned for two years after admitting buying a banned substance on the internet.
His lawyer said Hart-Strawbridge bought the human growth hormone precursor GHRP-6 as a "joke."
But many coaches and experts say there is intense pressure on young players to bulk up in a sport that often relies on brute force to get the tactical advantage that is the beauty of rugby.
World Rugby president Lapasset has called doping "the biggest danger for the integrity of the sport."
"Even if we are convinced that there is no culture of systematic doping in rugby, you have to be intransigent and World Rugby acts with a principle of zero tolerance," he added.
Tests during the World Cup will be examined at the elite Kings College in London and then held for eight years for possible new tests. Rugby has introduced biological passports that have helped catch more cheats in other sports by keeping records over several years for comparison.
In 2014, more than 2 000 tests were carried around the world out and four players banned.
Coming into the World Cup, France's squad were tested three times by the country's ALDA agency. Ten players were awoken at 7:00am three days before France played England in a warm-up match last month.
Later came the media reports that a Toulon pharmacist may have provided steroids to players at the southern city's three time European champions.
Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal has angrily condemned the media claims and said it was a social security fraud with no link to the club.
Doping has been a sensitive topic in France since former international Laurent Benezech alleged that banned substances were widespread in the national team in the 1980s. Benezech claimed he was given a steroid at the 1995 World Cup. He was sued for defamation by the players union but a French court cleared the former prop.
"We know we are in a high risk sport," said Christian Bagate, who heads the French Rugby Federation's anti-doping effort. "The public has the right to doubt that our players are clean and unfortunately you can find supplements that have doping products on sale in supermarket."
But the doctor insisted that contradictory World Anti-Doping Agency rules did not help and said the cases are individuals rather than organised on a team level.
UKAD chief executive Nicole Sapstead agrees but has highlighted the need for tests ahead of major tournaments like the World Cup. "The last thing any huge tournament like this wants is a doping scandal," she said.