How can Rugby support its retiring stars?

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Last week I wrote an article following Mark Palmer’s article in ‘The Sunday Times’ about ex-Scotland international Rory Lamont’s struggles with mental health issues, following his retirement from the game in 2013. Now looking forward, what can rugby do to try and support its retiring stars?

The first and most obvious way is keeping players within the game. After retirement, many players will have a wealth of knowledge and experience they can share- that often comes through one of two routes- coaching or becoming a pundit. There are many examples of this, for example Brian O’Driscoll and Will Greenwood, to name just two, have made names for themselves as television pundits and ex-players such as Ronan O’Gara, Martin Johnson and as of next season, Mike Blair, have moved into coaching roles.

The one route which is often neglected is refereeing, which seems bizarre. Players with years of front-line experience will know a lot about what goes on on the field, the tricks people play, and will generally already have the fitness and a good level of knowledge of the laws, making a transition into refereeing perhaps easier than for others. One issue that may put people off is the pressure- indeed we all saw how following a questionable decision in the World Cup Quarter Finals, World Rugby threw Craig Joubert under a bus, saying that he made the wrong decision. However, if you are able to acknowledge your mistakes like Nigel Owens for example, then refereeing can be a good route. Indeed New Zealander Glen Jackson has been successful in switching his playing boots for the whistle and Harlequin’s scrum-half Karl Dickson has been fast tracked through the amateur levels of refereeing in preparation for the next stage of his rugby career. It is, of course, different for those retiring through an injury where this will not be possible.

However, understandably, not everyone wants to stay in Rugby, it can be nice to have a change. For example, Alan Jacobsen (The Chunk) following his retirement has set up a plumbing business, whilst Chris Cusiter is planning a move to the USA to open his own Whisky business. Especially as an outsider, it’s easy to ask why more players don’t have a plan b; something to do in their retirement, or a plan should they suffer a serious injury.

Following his article in ‘The Sunday Times’ I got in touch with Mark Palmer and asked his opinions on the topic. A very interesting point he made is how “it is often very much in the interests of unions, clubs and their coaches to have their players operate with a week-to-week outlook, always focussed on the next match, the next challenge, the next job”. This is absolutely understandable as teams have goals to achieve and coaches have ways to do that- but in an environment where the next week is everything, it is very easy to see how the long-term can easily be swept-aside. This is potentially something that can be combated by coaches- still giving that week by week focus, but also making players aware and have them think about their futures after rugby.

Naturally, due to the nature of professional sport, players have top travel a lot, which often leads to isolation from outside groups, making their team-mates their primary social group. Once you leave that circle, it’s a lot harder to spend time with that circle and those no longer in the team can struggle to stay in that social group. Mr Palmer also highlighted that some studies suggest that on a subconscious level, players in social groups within professional sport often don’t like to mix too much with those who are no longer in the professional circle as it highlights the fragility of their position as a sportsman.

The next thing I want to discuss, may appear out of context, but stick with it. I want to talk about Sam Underhill. The 19 year old Ospreys flanker has had a huge breakthrough year. When he arrived at Cardiff University to start his economics degree, he was playing for the semi-professional side The Ravens, but Steve Tandy soon snapped him up and had him playing for the Welsh Region. Having made a huge impression on the field many have called for him to move his studies back to England so that he can play internationally. They say that he shouldn’t be allowed to play whilst in Wales as it sets a precedent for other players to exploit the ‘loophole’.

First of all, if this isn’t an “exceptional circumstance” that would allow him to play for England, I don’t know what is. Secondly, as we have seen, life after Rugby can be unforgiving- by having a degree in economics he will potentially be better set for life after Rugby. Now of course, there’s no obvious reason why he can’t transfer to England, but why should he? Before he became a professional rugby player he chose Cardiff University. He could have studied in England, but for him the best place to go was Wales. If he had chosen to study in Wales after being offered an Osprey’s contract, I can see why people may object, but in this case I strongly feel that it is in Underhill’s best interest to stay studying at Cardiff if that’s what he wants and if England really want him, they should exercise the circumstances rule.

The last glaring issue identified by both Lamont and Palmer is the fact there is no support network for professionals in Scotland. In England the Rugby Players association (RPA) has existed since 1998, since ’95 in Australia, ’01 in Ireland and ’05 in Wales. Where is such an organisation in Scotland? It seems Scottish clubs have a large task on their hands to help all of their players after they retire and unfortunately, some have slipped through the net already.

One thing is clear then- more action needs to be taken, both in Rugby, professional sports and in general.

To see my initial piece in response to Rory Lamont’s revelations about his experiences of professional rugby and mental health, click here. Included are links to the original post on The Sunday Times.

The Scribbler, 16th May, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

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