Rugby League: Painkiller abuse in focus as Rabbitohs players recover

SYDNEY (AFP) - Two Australian rugby league players who overdosed on painkillers were recovering well on Wednesday, the South Sydney Rabbitohs said, amid reports that prescription drugs are being widely abused in the sport.

Dylan Walker, a 20-year-old Australian international who was part of last year's premiership winning team, and rising star Aaron Gray, 21, were rushed to intensive care in the early hours of Tuesday.

Rabbitohs chief executive John Lee said the players were now off life-support equipment.

"They've gone from critical to stable and now I can report that their condition is even better, it's good," Lee told Sky Sports Radio. "Both the players are very alert. They're communicating with medical staff and with their families."

Police and the National Rugby League (NRL) were awaiting the results of a toxicology report.

South Sydney were knocked out of the NRL Finals this month, and both Walker and Gray had been prescribed highly-addictive pain-relief drugs after undergoing surgery ahead of pre-season training.

The club said there was no evidence that any illicit drugs or alcohol were involved.

However, Lee called for a national debate about prescription drugs in the sport as media reports pointed to a widespread scourge.

Sydney's Daily Telegraph quoted an agent saying 70 per cent of players were using such drugs in the off-season when scrutiny is limited.

"There needs to be nearly a national conversation about how we're dealing with different sorts of pains and pressures and what happens in sport," Lee said. "I think we've got to get real data, we've got to get the athletes involved with the professionals and debate what is the problem."

The Telegraph said the street name for the oxycodone, the powerful morphine derivative used by Walker and Gray, was "Hillbilly Heroin", which can be lethal if mixed with alcohol and is far cheaper than real heroin.

The Sydney Morning Herald noted a five-fold increase in oxycodone use over the last 10 years, with 3.7 million prescriptions in the 12 months to June 2014, according to government figures.

"Rugby League has a drug problem," wrote the daily's sports commentator Andrew Webster. "It is not cocaine. It's not ecstasy or crystal meth.

"It stopped being about alcohol years ago. The problem is prescription drugs. Stillies, Oxies, Benzos ... take your pick."

However Rugby League Players' Association (RLPA) chief Clint Newton said the statistics did not show abuse was widespread.

"We haven't seen any problems in the statistics we've seen," he told the Morning Herald. "The NRL and RLPA have been very progressive with the prescription drug testing that has been conducted over the last 12-18 months. It hasn't shown there are any real signs that there's an issue."