Recently I attended an event on ‘reinvention’ for players; discussing how many athletes struggle to move on to the next stage in their careers and what can be done to help. It was a rare opportunity where my day job as a business journalist linked up with my writing for the Rugby Blog, as among the speakers that evening were Simon Halliday, chairman of European Professional Club Rugby (the guys that run the Champions and Challenge Cups) and Schalk Brits and Alex Goode of Saracens
The topic of life after sport for players is an important one. Recently, several high-profile sportsmen and women have given frank accounts on the challenges to adapting to a life away from the intensity of elite sport – including the possible financial struggles and mental-health issues (Olympic badminton player Gail Emms’ story and cricketer Johnny Bairstow’s account of his father’s suicide are important reads, or for a rugby view, read Championship players Phil Eggleshaw and Ben Hooper’s tales). Schalk added his own insight to this at the event: ‘so many rugby players in South Africa go into financial difficulty after their career is over and, unfortunately, we don’t talk about it enough.’
Clubs have a duty of care to their players – in rugby, for example, that covers everything from doing more to prevent incidents of concussion, but also helping prepare them for when the time finally comes to hang up the boots. Some of the very top players may enjoy lucrative contracts and endorsements, and easily move on to a new career, but the vast majority do not. For example, it has previously been alleged some Championship players are on ‘full-time’ contracts worth as little as £6,000.
It is important this issue should not be seen as a ‘woe-is-me’ tale of entitlement – many of us would give anything to have the ability to be doing what these guys are doing, and players are aware of that. However, that does not mean there is not a very real challenge for the majority, when either their body gives up through age or they are struck down by injury. Playing rugby can never be a career for life.
Simon, Alex and Schalk, alongside Chris Sheppardson, the founder of EP Business in Hospitality magazine who hosted the event, shared their thoughts on the subject.
What happens when the whistle blows
Chris explained to me why this is such an important issue and why organised the event: ‘Those of us outside of the sporting industry put sport on a pedestal; we see it as our hobby and passion. We go to watch sport at the weekend. We never really think about what happens to the people we watch afterwards.
‘Many athletes haven’t prepared for a life after sport, and, when they retire, they’ve got to suddenly find a new place in the world.’
Simon Halliday added to this, ‘One moment – an injury, a loss of form, or never making the required standard – can change everything. Preparing people, from advising players that when they join the academy not to throw their education, through to that phase when they are at the top of their game and warning them not to lose perspective, and to consider what happens if they never played again.’
Alex Goode agreed, ‘It’s a constant concern that at some point I’ve got to reinvent myself and do something different. It’s always at the back of my mind.’
Simon warned, ‘There is a lot left to do and we are about to have a massive influx of recently retired top-level rugby players who are going to need help and guidance. I’m not sure we are set up to deal with it.’
Saracens as a case study
The two-time European champions have been lauded for their impressive performances and ‘wolf-pack’ team spirit.
Schalk explained the key to that attitude: ‘At Saracens, the philosophy is ‘we are going to treat you unbelievably well. The only thing you have to do in return is work unbelievably hard.’
‘Saracens measure you on skill error and effort error. They consider skill error their fault. They need to upgrade me to catch the ball better, throw it in, clean out rucks and so on. But effort error is your responsibility; you need to work as hard as you can, and the coach will just come down on you if you don’t work hard enough.’
But it was interesting to hear from Schalk and Alex that their ethos and winning mentality does not just come from rugby training, but the way Saracens encourage life and activity away from the pitch.
Schalk said ‘Saracens was refreshing compared to any other club. When I joined, they said to me, “we are going to keep you at the club for only three days a week. One other day you spend with the family, and the other day you do work experience.”
‘Where other rugby clubs just want you there training from eight in the morning till five in the afternoon as many days as you can, Saracens instead decided to invest in each individual.
‘If you are prepared to invest time, effort and only look at the positives in a player, they will give that benefit back to you in multiples. But you have to be patient with each and every player.’
‘The plan was only to come to Saracens for one year. I have been here for nine years.’
Alex added ‘Along with the RPA (Rugby Players Association) … The club is fantastic in helping us; whether it’s a university course, a brick laying course, an art course, or working in the city. They all do the utmost and it has a massive effect on everyone at the club.
‘It also helps when you are injured, you don’t rush back too quickly, as you’ve got other things going on in your life. It can help you to escape rugby so it does not become all encompassing, and too intense.
‘It is not just a safety net in terms of how things can change in rugby so quickly. But also great just to do stuff away from rugby and it makes you a better player.’
Having such high-profile people involved with the very top of the game was also an opportunity to discuss the worrying injury levels we are seeing this season, alongside that perennial issue for rugby of head-injuries.
Simon explained his position on the issues to me: ‘We have been in denial for a while about the issue of head injuries. It stuns me to see some of the tackling that goes on; players body checking each other. When people say the game is going soft, what on earth are they talking about?
‘I know there’s been at least two efforts to bring in some head gear, both of which have been thrown out because of concerns about the thickness and a danger it can be ‘weaponised’; that it could empower the player to go in harder and recklessly, using your head.’
‘Many defence coaches just don’t care how you stop somebody as long as you stop them. People still get their head in completely the wrong place and the tackling techniques can be very poor. It would be better for the game if they were tackling lower.
‘It was suggested last year – and I’m fringing towards favouring it – that you put a physical printed line across the shirt and say to players if you tackle above that line you might be off the pitch. Obviously, there are circumstances to each collision and the referee has to see that; for example, a player can dip into a tackle.
‘I said last year we are sleepwalking into the problem. I don’t think we’re still sleepwalking, I think we’re wide awake, but that does not mean we have got the answers yet.’
Alex added his thoughts: ‘For me, it is just the nature of the game in that everyone is getting stronger and faster, more powerful and bigger. But some parts of the body cannot: your neck, your head, your joints – they cannot get much stronger.’
‘We just have to be very careful how many games we expect from the players. Everyone wants to see more great rugby, but maybe we get a higher quality if there were slightly fewer matches, and maybe we would see more longevity from players.’
I asked Alex for his thoughts on Billy Vunipola’s comment that he would take a lower salary to play fewer games if it helped prolong his career: ‘I think it is a noble idea. But it will be interesting to see what happens down the road. Maybe you will see more people going to Japan for a short six-month or four-month season and getting paid a similar salary.
‘But in the end I think people want to be in the best league in the world, with the best players and the best competitions, like the Champions Cup.’
Alex, Schalk, Simon and Chris were speaking at the ‘Reinvention – how sports players move to the next stage in their careers’ event, hosted by EP – Business in Hospitality. Photographer Nick Dawe, courtesy of EP
By Henry Ker