For people like this writer, who played schools rugby in the dreary 1980s, the modern day Irish schools rugby player is a terrifying sight. While we whinged and moaned our way through cold, wet November nights on terrible fields, poorly conditioned and lacking basic nutritional knowledge, the modern player is fast, fit, and absolutely huge! We were skinny guys, often talented, sure, but absolutely tiny compared to the kids the major rugby factories (schools) are churning out these days.
When those of us who played back in the stone ages gather, we often gripe about the sheer size of these kids and their Justin Bieber haircuts. The conversation invariably leads to supplements such as Creatine. The Moe Sizlack mentality sets in and we whip ourselves into a frenzy and gather pitchforks and torches ready to storm Dublin’s major rugby schools and demand their kids stop taking supplements and steroids.
That sentiment has been played out in great drama and with much bluster over the last couple of years by some major news publications.
The truth is, yes, kids in Ireland’s schools are taking supplements like Creatine, and they are often doing this behind the school’s backs. Regardless, the fact is, the kids appear to be policing themselves somewhat, and managing to stay out of harm and or trouble. It would appear that supplement taking is not as prevalent as some papers would have you believe, and even when it is happening, it’s happening in small doses and in conjunction with focussed, disciplined work out and weight lifting programs.
There appear to be a number of opinions set firmly on the topic.
The general public and the media at large are basically screaming that young Irish kids are obviously taking buckets of supplements and steroids, as evidenced by their increased size and (seriously) outbursts of pimples. The schools are basically saying that not only do none of their kids take these supplements, but also that they are going to great lengths to ban them. Meanwhile the Irish workout/lifting community are incensed that anyone would suggest that there’s anything wrong with supplement taking.
Interestingly, adults who partake in the supplement style of body-building bristle aggressively at any suggestion that supplements such as Creatine are in any way dangerous. Take a look at any number of online forums where (largely) Irish male Creatine and other supplement users aggressively scoff at the suggestion that taking supplements can be dangerous for you.
What these individuals are missing is that the effects of supplements like these on young bones and young internal systems can be catastrophic in comparison with the effects they have on well developed adults.
However, as with those who are crying out that supplements are taking over our schools, the adult lifters' opinions are aggressive and, possibly, falling outside the reasonable middle ground. Whichever side you are on, opinions are varied and strong.
To date there is barely anything in the media in terms of the student body and their opinion on the topic, so we took the time to talk to two of them, one a recent student at a big South Dublin school, the other a current strength and conditioning coach at a big Dublin rugby school. Obviously we changed their names to protect their identity.
Ben is a former player from a big rugby powerhouse school, Jerry is a strength and conditioning coach
Ben, when you were playing schools rugby, did you take anything in terms of supplements?
Ben: I took a protein shake after the gym and when I was in 5th year I dabbled with Creatine. We had a really strong team in 5th year and I need to be able to match up with them physically to push for a place. But to be honest, my school was very strict on supplements. You would be banned from the gym if you were caught with it. Other schools take a very relaxed policy on them though. Like when I was in 6th year, it was known that a load of guys from a smaller school (who did very well that year) were on roids.
Did your school actually take action against anyone taking a supplement? Do you think the majority who did it got away with it? What percentage of your squad was using supplements? Was anyone on anything stronger?
Ben: One fella was barred yeah and got whatever he was taking confiscated. No one was on steroids. In terms of protein and Creatine, it varies from year to year. When I was in 5th year a good few of the 6th years were on Creatine. Whereas, when I was in 6th not many of us were.
With Creatine, if the school expressly frowned on it, how did you find out about it, word of mouth? Did kids talk about it, were you all aware you were taking it or trying it? Seeing the size of some of these kids, it must have been obvious, right?
Ben: Ah the word gets around. From other guys in other schools and fitness magazines etc. it's hard to miss it. When we would talk about it, it would generally start with some player from whichever school is "big" and he's taking it. No one ever announced to the group that they were taking it nor was it secretive Not necessarily, Creatine would have very little impact on kids that age. People under 18 will get bigger, stronger and faster when exposed to good strength and conditioning programs and in the majority of these schools, they are. Hence their size. You can't put Creatine alone down to someone being 5 or 10kg bigger. Kids will get bigger and especially with their exposure to lifting
Jerry, for people my age who played rugby, the difference in size of the players now is astonishing, do you think its largely to do with lifting so, with other supplements only a minor reason for the growth in size?
Jerry: Those ridiculous articles that come out every year which claim that Creatine and lifting weights will ruin your child are ridiculous and lazy journalism. Creatine is designed for elite athletes and has little effect on recreational athletes. The reason they get bigger is because their sport demands it. Without a doubt. The sport has evolved and so has the science. And so has the competition. Schools want to win and if having a qualified S&C coach will give them a chance, they'll do if
Ben, what age were you when you first took a supplement, and what kind of work out routine were you in at the time?
Ben: I first took a supplement at 17 and I was on my schools program. I hadn't a clue though. If I was educated like the kids are now, I wouldn't have wasted my money
Why do you say ‘waste your money’?
Because I didn't need it. If I sorted my diet out first that would have been more beneficial. You can't supplement a bad diet. With that being said, it did no harm whatsoever to me or anyone that I knew who took it. This rubbish that kids get all hormonal from taking it is BS. Essentially, if a kid takes it, it won't harm them whatsoever. But they don't need it
When you were taking the supplement, did you at any time have any concerns, personally, about any of these: kidney damage, heart problems, muscle cramps and pulls, dehydration?
Ben: No and no one should.
Jerry: It is the most widely researched supplement. No direct implications have been found with taking it
With nothing to be concerned about, why did your school ban it?
Ben: I don't know. I would hazard a guess that it gives a bad rep and that if kids are allowed to take Creatine then they might get bored with it and go to something harder. And as well, it adds pressure on parents to buy it for their sons.
Jerry: With my lack of concern for it, I still believe there is no need for it in schools rugby. A good diet will be more than enough. Kids think it's a quick fix as, eating appropriately all the time is hard.
Ben, It seems like supplement use at your school was not an issue, in that the students kept it quiet, used it in small amounts, and used it in conjunction with a good work out regime. Were you aware of any problems at other schools at the time? Supplements, steroids or anything similar?
Ben: No it wasn't at all. Yeah we used to hear that most lads in other schools took it and that their coaches didn't mind? But that's hearsay. And only at senior level. There was one case when I was in 6th year that a few players from a small school were on steroids. I only heard about it after the cup. I don't really know if it was known during or before the cup. Steroids are very rarely seen in the schools game. That was the only case I've ever heard about
Jerry, you are a strength and conditioning coach now for a team, what do you think about kids under 18 lifting? Do you see any dangers, or do you think it's a good, healthy activity?
Jerry: I think it's good if it's the right situation and carefully programmed to the age level. Like kids in junior cup won't be doing anything like the SCT. As long as they move well (ie. good mobility, flexibility and stability) it is absolutely no harm. They need to be supervised though!
You mentioned earlier that you think the sport is evolving in Ireland, do you think it's largely down to the relatively new professional element to the game, or what other drivers are there that have kids lifting, working out, going the extra mile to succeed in schools rugby?
Jerry: Well if you look at rugby now to 10 years ago, players are bigger and faster and that's the same at all competitive levels. Schools teams have been lifting since the early 90s, there's nothing new about that. With the science out there and the ability of schools to hire proper strength and conditioning professionals it can enable them to not just improve their players' bio motor abilities but monitor them for potential injuries. I think rugby turning pro does have something to do with it. That's the same across all pro sports
Finally Jerry, do you have any general advice for young players starting lifting who might not be getting the support you had or that you are giving?
Jerry: I would tell them to go to a good fitness professional and build the foundations (mobility etc) before they start lifting heavy
That’s the end of the interview. The two come across as very knowledgeable and assured when talking to them, and they both clearly had and stuck to well defined work out plans. In this writer’s opinion it’s clear that people like Ben and Jerry will never have problems even when using supplements within their workout routine, because they clearly know what they are doing, and plan well.
The issues would perhaps crop up from less well focused kids, with less planning and supervision too. Jim King, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians thinks kids should not use Creatine. "Children are still in a growing phase, and we're not sure what impact Creatine may have on muscles and bones as they grow," he says. "I feel very strongly that middle and even high-schoolers shouldn't use it."
That sums it up pretty well, essentially we don’t know how using Creatine, particularly in large volumes, will affect these kids in 10, 20 and 30 years’ time. Perhaps their head’s won’t explode, as some of the more hysterical media outlets would have us believe, however is there any point in taking the risk?
Both the player and coach we talked to appear to be suggesting that a good diet and a good workout regime actually completely void any necessity to take supplements.
What is clear is that the players and coaches in schools rugby in Ireland have perhaps the most balanced, reasonable view about supplement taking, and, since the schools themselves are (to a large extent) either turning a blind eye or in denial about their usage, that’s probably the best news of all.