This column was first published in the September 2016 issue of Rugby World.
ALL THIS stuff about player welfare wasn’t even an issue when I started out professionally. Maybe it’s my Protestant work ethic, or my Catholic guilt (I’m never quite sure which I am), but I never once thought about needing a rest, break or sabbatical during the first half of my career. I had somehow ended up being paid to mess about on a rugby pitch, working a few hours daily for a pretty decent wedge, and I wasn’t about to start whining about being a bit sore. It was probably down to my upbringing – growing up in a hole by t’ side of motorway, handful of freezing cold poison for breakfast, etc – but I never felt anything other than lucky.
My employers generally seemed to be of the same opinion, and gave the impression that they were doing you a favour in paying you to perform this bizarre métier. Given that so few clubs turn a profit, I could sort of see their point – most are more like charitable foundations for the mildly brain damaged than businesses.
But at a certain stage of your evolution, once the exuberance and resilience of youth fades, you wake up one painful morning and realise that you are essentially being paid to get beaten up once a week. Twice counting the dreaded Tuesday session. And that, despite all the jibes from friends and relatives in normal, nine-to-five jobs, you might actually be earning your corn after all, as you’re doing things they either can’t do or aren’t prepared to do.
There are two main ways that pro players stand out from the gimp on the Clapham omnibus: either through greater-than-ordinary skill, speed or power (ie, the majority of top-level backs); or a willingness to repeatedly put yourself through pain and discomfort that most would find bizarre (ie, 90% of club-level forwards).
Clearly, for the purposes of this discussion I’m focusing on the second ‘attribute’. Like I say, as you get older, and the visible and invisible evidence of your various injuries mounts, you realise that the basic requirements of your career, short as it is, may be hazardous to your health.
When you think about it, there are scarcely any first-world jobs left which you can say that about – a source of perverse pride for some in rugby. But, having come to that conclusion, what can you do about it? You’re now in your mid-twenties and, not to beat about the bush, moving into the most lucrative years of your career. With an average contract lasting two years there is a constant, urgent need to prove to either your current club or others in the market that you are A) worth the cash you are on or B) actually deserve more. Unless you are a bona fide star, the chance for a mid-season holiday doesn’t come up.
Most clubs will have some sort of policy on rotation, but every coach knows that there are some guys he just can’t afford to drop. I’ve seen fly-halves promised the weekend off on Monday, only for his replacement to have a stinker in training all week and find himself back in the starting team by Thursday. People talk about it being a results business but, business or not, you don’t get to the top without hating losing, which is why, when it comes to the crunch, it’s so hard for coaches to rest their best guys.
Players are no different, and don’t want to leave their team hanging. Most, then, have to be told that they need a break, but this is a tricky one for coaches. It’s a funny thing but sometimes you can feel absolutely fine until someone tells you you’ve been overdoing it, at which point your brain convinces you that you are indeed knackered, and your physical performance instantly goes down the tubes. Players don’t really speak out about this too much – at the moment there is no loud player voice everyone recognises as the big advocate for making changes.
Which is why I always felt it was better just to keep on trucking. This way, nature usually intervened, as if you play enough games in a row you’re sure to eventually pick up a decent-sized injury. So, your body gets the break from combat it needs, and the question of impressing potential employers is also taken care of – as every player knows, the longer you’re injured, the better the player you become. That’s the problem solved, right?