Gray returns after drugs hell

SELF-BELIEF: Stockton’s Shane Gray training with the Titans at Robina.
SELF-BELIEF: Stockton’s Shane Gray training with the Titans at Robina.

IT'S a Friday in June, 2009 and Shane Gray is sitting in the waiting room of a Manly physiotherapist nursing a swollen ankle.

Gray, who grew up in Stockton and played his junior rugby league at South Newcastle, is an 18-year-old forward in the first season of a two-year deal with the Manly Sea Eagles under-20s squad.

Things are good, apart from the ankle.

His NRL debut might not be imminent, but Gray believes he's "on the right track" and could be packing down with the likes of Anthony Watmough, Glenn Stewart and Brent Kite sooner rather than later.

Fast-forward almost four years to the day - June 2, 2013 - and Gray is running out for his first-grade debut at Skilled Park in Gold Coast Titans colours.

He plays about 30 minutes off the bench against North Queensland, fills in at centre and afterwards, as the adrenalin starts to wear off, he allows himself to soak up the moment and all the hard work it took to get there.

So why did it take a promising young prop, who stands at 192 centimetres and weighs 102 kilograms but can run with the speed of an outside back, four years to finally crack the big time?

Back in that physio's waiting room, Gray's phone starts to vibrate in his pocket.

The caller is a representative from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority - better known as ASADA - the government statutory authority that rose to prominence this year after announcing an investigation into alleged performance-enhancing drugs in Australian sport.

The voice on the other end of the line gets straight to the point: Gray has returned a positive test for clenbuterol, a banned substance used mainly by bodybuilders during their "cutting periods", as a bronchodilator for asthma sufferers and as a performance enhancing drug by athletes competing in sport or individually around the world.

He faces being wiped out from rugby league for two years, the same punishment levelled at former international Reni Maitua about a month earlier.

The phone call lasts only a few moments but it changes Gray's life forever.

"I was dumbfounded, I didn't know what to do," Gray told the Newcastle Herald this week.

"I was 18 and footy was my life. I was lost, I suppose."

Gray said he is still unsure exactly how he returned a positive test but thinks an asthma medication that had been prescribed by a doctor, and that he didn't know contained a substance on the banned list, may have been responsible.

"I don't really know anything about clenbuterol, I know it shreds fat, that's all I know," he said.

"I was skinny back then so it wouldn't have made any sense.

"I had just had a throat infection and took the medication to help me breath and be able to relax.

"It's something I'd been taking since I was a seven-year-old kid."

Gray said he had wanted to contest ASADA's ruling, but fighting the suspension would have meant an expensive legal battle and a potential four-year ban if he lost.

He hung around in Manly for a while before returning to Newcastle to continue a carpentry apprenticeship he started when he was 15.

He stayed fit and focused and when the ban ended he lobbed at a South Newcastle training session with the hope of getting some game time.

But the week he was due to make his return, he suffered another major setback.

"The week before the ban was up I popped my shoulder out at training," he said.

"But I was determined to play so I kept seeing the physio who eventually told me to see a shoulder specialist.

"He said I needed a reconstruction on my shoulder.

"I was shattered, it nearly killed me, to have the two-year ban and then the shoulder problems I just couldn't believe it.

"But I couldn't get the surgery because it would mean I would miss work and lose my job so I kept going to the physio and kept going to the gym and working on it, and it got to the point where I was able to play through the pain and I played out the rest of the year with Souths."

At the end of the season the promise of a job in the mines sent Gray to Gladstone, about 550 kilometres north of Brisbane.

He began playing park footy with the local team but was resigned to the fact his professional rugby league career was over.

Then one day, he packed his bags and left for Burleigh Heads.

"All of a sudden I had the urge to play," he said.

After playing one week in reserve grade he was picked in the Burleigh Bears Queensland Cup side.

"I just had the drive, I wanted it more and I didn't want to stop," he said. "I had that hunger and didn't want anyone to get in my way.

"When I started playing good for Burleigh I started thinking maybe I had a chance."

He drew the attention of Titans coach John Cartwright, who offered him a pre-season contract with the club.

After a few trial games he was signed to a full-time contact until the end of 2013.

With the Origin period looming, Gray knew he was a chance of making that long-awaited debut.

But it took back-rower Dave Taylor to be ruled out after the final training run for Gray to get a start.

When the game finally came, Gray said he was calm and relaxed. After all, he'd spent four years preparing for this moment - his first run, his first tackle, even his first mistake.

He paid tribute to his family and his fiancee, Ashleigh, for standing by him and keeping him grounded. For someone who worked so hard to achieve his dream, his goals are surprisingly simple.

"Just going to keep going forward, focusing on the future," he said.

"I've come a long way and I don't want to stop. I just want to keep going. Everyone in the world tried to stop me from doing what I love doing, but I got there and I don't want it to stop now."

Gray next chance to impress could come on June 24 when the Titans host the Melbourne Storm the Monday night before Origin II.