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Doping-Australian Rules club charged in drugs probe

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Australian Football League (AFL) has charged top-flight Australian Rules club Essendon Bombers and four senior officials for bringing the game into disrepute after a six-month investigation by the national anti-doping agency.

Essendon, one of the league's oldest and most storied franchises, had been under a cloud throughout the 2013 AFL season as the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) probed its program of supplements given to players in 2011 and 2012.

The AFL had charged head coach James Hird, regarded as one of the finest players of the modern era, his championship-winning assistant coach Mark Thompson, football manager Danny Corcoran and the club's doctor Bruce Reid, the governing body said in a statement on Tuesday.

"I have reviewed the information collected during the course of the joint AFL/ASADA investigation, considered the matter carefully and have come to the view the parties charged have a case to answer," AFL General Counsel Andrew Dillon said.

Essendon, who have already qualified for the playoffs, will face a hearing on August 26, the AFL added, less than two weeks before the postseason starts on September 6.

The case has sent shockwaves throughout Australia's AFL community, with local newspapers reporting grisly details of players being injected with peptides in private clinics under the supervision of club officials.

Peptides are short chains of amino acids which athletes can take in supplement form to aid muscle growth and re-generation.

A number of them are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, including growth hormone and Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1).

Essendon announced in February that it was cooperating with ASADA and commissioned an independent review which found governance failures at the club had contributed to a "disturbing picture of a pharmacologically experimental environment".

The AFL, however, said it had no information that any player at Essendon had violated the league's anti-doping policy.

"As such, at the present time, no infraction notices will be issued under the AFL Anti-Doping code," the statement said.

The investigation remains open, however, and further individuals could be charged, the AFL added.

The club's chairman quit last month, one of a string of officials to depart amid the scandal, and captain Jobe Watson, who won the AFL's most valuable player award last season, sensationally admitted on a television chat show in June that he believed he had been administered a banned drug.

New chairman Paul Little said the club would "vigorously" defend the charges but added: "There is no doubt that the club and individuals have made mistakes and that our governance and people management had significant gaps."

The four charged will be allowed to continue in their roles.

Essendon is expected to be fined and docked championship points if found guilty, which would mean elimination from the playoffs race.

ASADA is also investigating the use of supplements at Cronulla Sharks, a club in Australia's top-flight National Rugby League.

(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Rex Gowar)

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