What got us talking: Illicit drugs controversy steals the show?

Footy’s back… and isn’t it great? The first round was full of tantalising performances, as well as some abysmal ones, but it can be said that overall it really was a great start to the season.

The attention should be on the fantastic efforts from players and critical coaching maneuvers. But unfortunately the focus, not for the first time, was shifted away from the game itself.

Last Thursday, just hours before the Tigers and Blues kicked off the 2016 season, news broke “up to 11” Collingwood players had tested positive for illicit drugs during the off-season.

The Herald Sun released the story, stating Collingwood wasn’t the only club with “alarming hair-test results” and “at least two other clubs recorded worse drug-test results”. Despite this, Collingwood was the only club named.

The announcement threw off the Pies, with president Eddie McGuire finding out while on air for Fox Footy’s pre-match coverage. McGuire said he was in the dark about the results.

“We get piecemeal information,” McGuire said. “We’re speaking to the AFL in the next couple of weeks about the hair-testing results. But until the clubs have actually got some control over it, there’s no point talking to the clubs.”

On Friday, AFL general manager of football operations Mark Evans stood by the new policy. In a statement, he said it “gives the code unprecedented levels of information regarding drug use” and a “stronger capacity to intervene and penalise players”.

“Testing results continue to indicate levels of use below the general public,” Evans said. “The AFL has informed the clubs regarding the hair testing over the holidays, but we will not make these public.”

This new illicit drug policy was introduced in October 2015 and saw an increase in the number of hair tests conducted over the Summer.

The players bought into this change. Reports show 14 clubs had every player volunteer for testing, while the remaining four clubs had approximately 75 percent of their players tested.

A positive result during the off-season does not count as a strike under the AFL-AFLPA illicit drugs policy. But the players who do test positive will be subjected to target testing during the year.

A key aspect of this policy is confidentiality: the clubs and fans are not meant to know the specifics of the results. The public approximation of Collingwood players who tested positive intrudes on that confidentiality.

During his regular segment on Fox Footy’s AFL 360, Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley was quick to highlight the illicit drugs go further than just his football club.

“Our club and our players have been dragged through it. It’s not a Collingwood issue, it’s an AFL issue,” Buckley said. “Clubs are not to have anything to do with their players (during the off-season). It should be de-identified against the club because the clubs have been marginalised. And yet we get tarred with this.”

Geelong’s Chris Scott also weighed in on the issue, criticising the Herald Sun’s inability to state a definite number.

“To speculate like that does a lot of damage to what the code is trying to do,” Scott said. “There’s a view now that players are just running around doing illicit drugs whenever they like, and the code does nothing but slap them on the wrist. But our drug testing regime is harder than Olympic sports.”

Now, no one is condoning illicit drug use. It is a serious issue for our whole society, not just the AFL alone. We all accept that, and the league is constantly working to combat the issue among its players.

But confidentiality and unity is paramount. No club or player should be singled out; especially when the facts are a little shady and it looks like all of the clubs are involved.

This will not be the end of this story; after all, when has anything simply gone away? But for once, we need to allow the clubs, officials and medical professionals to work through the issue of illicit drugs. They can help the players receive the support and treatment they need to limit the problem all together.

In the meantime, let the fans go back to the game itself. Let us allow the football do the talking.

What we learnt from round one

– It was a mixed bag

Collingwood and Fremantle could not have started their seasons on worse footing, looking second rate against their clinical opposition. The Cats and Roos were victorious in last quarter thrillers while the Dogs played “sexy” football according to some commentators. Young teams in Carlton, Melbourne and Gold Coast impressed. And in a bizarre turn of events, every single home team won.

– Stand out stars

Guns were the order of the weekend. The likes of Priddis and Kennedy out west, Ablett up north, and Dangerfield at the ‘G, showed the crowds exactly why they pay good money to go to the footy. It’ll be exciting to see what else they have in store.

– Young guns ruled the roost

A sleuth of players debuted in round one to stellar results. Carlton’s number one pick Jacob Weitering looked composed. The Bombers’ Darcy Parish, Melbourne’s Clayton Oliver and Sydney’s Tom Papley were efficient and effective. All looked right at home.

What we can expect from round two

– Friday night’s a big one

Collingwood will be looking for redemption (although with a depleted list) while the Tigers will be aiming for a four quarter effort. Expect there to be a large crowd, lots of noise and a competitive contest on display.

– Grand final rematch

The Eagles went missing on grand final day, leaving the Hawks to make it a three-peat. But will an outstanding round one performance leave West Coast in better stead? An injury riddled Hawks will make it a little easier, but an MCG setting might once again be kryptonite for the Eagles.

– The South Australian Showdown

Port vs. Adelaide is always exciting match. But will the Danger-less Crows learn from their poor second half in round one? With the likes of Betts, Walker, Wingard and Wines (just to name a few), one thing’s for certain; it’ll be a close contest with plenty of acts of brilliance.