Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

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“Pain is temporary”. A phrase a lot of young people are told when they first start playing rugby. It’s one of those old clichés, up there with “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”. A lie, in other words. The bigger they are, the more painful they are to tackle. Nor is pain temporary. Not even close. With Mental Health Awareness Week taking place at the moment, we look at the safety of players and the impact rugby is having on their future health.

When you think of everything that goes into a rugby match, it is far more than just 80 minutes of trying to get the ball down on the other side of the pitch. There are a high number of collisions (between the tackle, ruck, and maul areas). A high number of training sessions include contact drills of some description. Players train in the gym in order to make themselves more athletic, stronger, and bigger than their opposition. And only the elite are monitored closely.

Most players will play while carrying an injury. Granted, they may not train in the lead up to that game in order to rehabilitate the injury as much as possible, but they will play. Look at Dan Carter in the Champions Cup final for Racing 92. He went into the game with one good leg, and came off early in the second half. Racing 92 still have the remainder of their domestic league to play-so why risk it? But the “it” is not risking missing your best player; the “it” is making sure the player isn’t risking his health in the future.

Sabbaticals are not a concept lost on Dan Carter. He went to Perpignan a number of years ago, and got out of the New Zealand limelight for a year. The idea was that playing away from all that pressure would rejuvenate his game. In theory it was a great concept. In reality, he ruptured his Achilles and played very little rugby.

Carter was destined to shine on the big stage, but getting knocked out of the 2007 World Cup and getting injured in the 2011 campaign stole that from him. He took a second sabbatical, this time not playing the game whatsoever. A while later, he was Man of the Match in a World Cup final, and kicked his last All Black conversion with his weaker leg.

I’m not saying a sabbatical was the magic behind his performance that day; I’m simply saying it helped.

Alex Corbisiero toured Australia in 2013 with the British and Irish Lions, and scored a try in the third Test. He established himself as one of the top front-rowers in the game. But he decided he had enough. His decision came about as his contract with Northampton Saints was winding down, and he chose to simply not renew his contract. Now, he’s in a good place.

“I’ve had 14 weeks off and feel really good. I was physically and mentally spent after 10 years of full-time rugby. The intensity, the physicality, the injuries and the pressure I put on myself took its toll. I knew if I wanted to play rugby again I had to stop for a while.”

It was brave of ‘Corbs’ to take a break, and he knew not everyone would appreciate his decision. But he did it anyway, as it was best for him. He was proactive rather than waiting for an injury to prevent him from playing long into the future.

But players want to play. They love the game, they love their job, and after earning an opportunity for become a professional sportsman/woman, why would they give it up for a year and face an uncertain future or a year with zero income? You require some level of robustness to play rugby, and fans can confuse that with being almost unbreakable. It’s simply not the case. Especially when it comes to younger players:

“The accumulative wear-and-tear worries me. Maro Itoje is a superstar at 21 and we need to make sure that in six years, at his peak, he’s fresh enough to be physically imposing. He’s a phenomenal player but we can’t have him being run into the ground by playing 30-odd games every season. Same as George North. He’s 24 and playing Tests since he was 18 – without a proper break. We have to look after these great players.”

Robert Kitson wrote a piece on England’s Rugby Championship system in which he referenced Ben Hooper’s sentiments. Hooper feels that players in the Championship are being forced to accept contracts by people with “scant interest in their physical or mental well-being”, but for very little money. Whereas the money is an issue, welfare should be the upmost priority. The mental aspect of the sport is just as strenuous as the physical.

Kitson also wrote an article based on the mental strain players face in professional rugby. He admires Rory Lamont’s opening up in the Sunday Times about his feelings towards retirement, and rightly so, as it was incredibly courageous:

“You’re thinking: ‘I don’t want to live like this. I’d rather die. Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll get struck by lightning or step in front of a bus.’ Coming out of rugby, my world pretty much collapsed.”

Kitson also describes how Lamont went on to describe how he struggles to cope outside what professionals would describe as a “safety-blanket” of club rugby. He added:

“Once that’s removed, you’re that little child, completely scared, totally vulnerable and very much on your own. I wasn’t always in love with rugby, but I was surrounded by friends, travelling the world. Suddenly everything was gone. I felt like a spent battery, tossed on the scrapheap.”

But all this talk of taking a break is not a recent phenomenon. George Chuter echoed Corbisiero’s sentiments in an interview with the Guardian, when he spoke about how his gift of a long career was in fact borrowed time from his future:

“I’m under no illusions. You have a great career, you have a great time – and it is a great career – but the human body can’t take that sort of punishment and come away scot-free. If you want to get to the top level you’ve got to make sacrifices. And it’s not just your time, or a bag of chips – it’s sacrificing your long‑term health. You want to have that time in the sun. But unfortunately it’s a deal with the devil.”

But Chuter decided to act, and like Corbisiero, he took a sabbatical in 2000. He felt he disillusioned with the game, so he walked away for a time. As fans will know, that did not signal the end of Chuter. He came back to have an illustrious career with Leicester Tigers and became a fan favourite.

But since Chuter’s sabbatical in 2000, one he took partially due to being mentally drained, things have changed. Players are only a tweet away from being accessible to the public 24/7, leaving them prime targets for upset fans after a poor game. Social media is just another platform where these players, who may be struggling internally, can be poked at with taunts and ill wishes. This does not help to aid their mental recuperation. It does not add to their self-confidence, or their self-worth. Just because they play sport at an elite level does not mean they aren’t struggling with their own issues.

Sabbaticals seem to work. Alex Corbisiero is happy. George Chuter returned to have a glittering career. Dan Carter became the World Player of the Year for the third time. His New Zealand team-mate and twice-winning World Cup captain Richie McCaw deemed one necessary. Of late, David Pocock had a sabbatical to study abroad included in his contract. Even Joe Marler has withdrawn himself from the England tour to Australia to rest for next season. But how could unions go about to make these breaks accessible to players who can’t afford to take one off their own backs?

Perhaps the unions could include a sabbatical period in every contract. Players could be offered the option of a period of 3-6 months half-pay in return for taking one, or clubs could offer the option of a six month paid leave after a certain period of service. Just an idea.

A sabbatical could offer players a chance to build on their lives outside rugby; experience what it’s like to live a normal life for a while, let them concentrate on their business or focus on what they’ll do when they hang up the boots. It would allow them to recover mentally and physically, so that Lamont’s situation won’t be repeated.

I am also in no way stating that the clubs, unions, or players’ unions are not doing a good job; I’m only hoping that player welfare continues to improve. With this being Mental Health Awareness Week, there’s no time like the present.

Image Credit: Sky Sports

Interview Credit: The Irish Times, The Guardian