LONDON • The Rugby World Cup starts on Friday with the sport facing new doping doubts and its global chief Bernard Lapasset saying that banned substances are its biggest danger.
World Rugby this month confirmed a two-year drug ban on 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 will be conducted but it knows rugby well.
Of the 47 people on the Ukad banned list, 16 are from rugby union and another 12 come from rugby league.
Many of the players 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 to buying a banned substance on the Internet.
His lawyer said the player 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.
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 said.
Tests during the World Cup will be examined at the elite Kings College in London and held for eight years for possible new tests.
Rugby has also introduced biological passports that have helped catch more cheats in other sports by keeping records over several years for comparison.
Last year, more than 2,000 tests were carried out around the world and four players were banned.
Coming into the World Cup, France's squad were tested three times by the country's AFLD anti-doping agency.
Ten players were awoken at 7am three days before France took on 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.
He 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 prohibited substances were widespread in the national team back in the 1980s.
He claimed that he was given a steroid at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.
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 a supermarket."
However, 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.