(Adds ASADA comment, sports minister quotes)
* Clubs confirm named in national drugs probe
* NRL says investigation going on for “weeks”
* Casts shadow over NRL season
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Anti-doping officials have met with six top-flight Australian rugby league clubs named in a national probe into the use of banned performance-enhancing drugs that has sent shockwaves through the sports-mad country.
The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) briefed National Rugby league (NRL) clubs Manly, Cronulla, Newcastle, Penrith, North Queensland and Canberra on their investigation process on Tuesday after the clubs confirmed they were under scrutiny in the wake of an explosive report released last week.
The report, the result of a year-long investigation by Australia’s top criminal intelligence unit, had already implicated two Australian Rules football teams, rocking a country long proud of its image as a nation that plays fair.
ASADA met with the affected NRL clubs as a group and individually on Tuesday, the NRL said, and senior officials at the teams put on a brave face after the briefings.
“We’re probably a low-to-medium risk around this,” Manly CEO David Perry told reporters.
”It’s going to take a bit of time. It’s a confidential process.
”Even those that (investigators) do speak to aren’t necessarily guilty of any wrongdoing, it’s just a process that we go through.
“If it’s bigger than we think, well, you know, then we need to clean the game up, but based on my discussions today I‘m fairly confident that we’re all OK.”
Penrith boss Phil Gould, who last week slammed investigators for releasing the doping report without providing details of affected clubs and players, said he understood it would be a drawn-out process.
“I’ve been well informed of what they are looking at and how long this process will take and how serious it is and at the end of the day we totally support the process and totally support the work the NRL is doing,” he told reporters.
The meeting came after Australia’s sports minister warned the country faced a grim fight to stamp out doping, which Australia’s top criminal intelligence unit said was fuelled by organised crime.
“Sports would be foolish to think that they didn’t need to take the integrity of their sport seriously,” sports minister Kate Lundy told reporters.
”The substance of the issue here is that we do have a fight on our hands. It’s a serious one.
“Australians take their sport extremely seriously and as sport minister I will not stand by to allow this kind of thing to go on in Australian sport unchecked.”
The revelations have plunged both rival football codes into crisis ahead of the start of their seasons in March.
The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) report said it had found “widespread” use of banned performance-enhancing drugs among professional and amateur athletes, with links to gambling and organised crime.
The report drew fire from elite athletes and some politicians, who demanded investigators name and shame offenders to protect the reputations of clean sportspeople.
Lundy hit back at the criticism, however, and said it was up to others to come forward or come clean.
“I think it’s been frustrating for everybody,” she said.
“Let’s remember it is in the hands of each club who believes it may have a problem, to put their hand up and be part of the solution.”
Only one club out of the eight implicated came forward, the rest denying drug problems or claiming they were unaware of any.
The Melbourne-based Essendon Bombers, one of the country’s oldest and most popular Australian Rules clubs, called a media conference last week to announce they had thrown themselves at the mercy of anti-doping authorities after becoming concerned about the legality of supplements administered to their players.
Governing body, the Australian Football League, has declined to name the second Australian Rules club in the probe but has confirmed one of its players is under suspicion.
Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett said auditors had spent a number of days going through his club’s records dating back to 2005.
“They want us to confess to something. I‘m racking my head what we’ve got to confess to,” Bennett, one of the league’s most successful coaches, told reporters.
“I’ve been through the staff, I’ve checked with all the players ... Whatever they’re looking for, it hasn’t happened in the past 18 months. So after that I’ve got no idea.”
Penrith captain Kevin Kingston said he was confident his club was clean.
“We trust our sports scientists. We don’t take anything out of the ordinary. I barely take protein myself,” he told reporters at Sydney airport.
“I don’t think there is a drug problem at our club.”
NRL chief executive David Smith, however, said his administration had been working with ASADA for a “number of weeks”.
“I can’t comment on the outcome on the information we have so far. What I can say is that they’re serious matters,” he told reporters.
“I have said right from the outset that it involved multiple clubs and multiple players and as a sport we have taken this very seriously in the way we have approached this.” (Additional reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)