An in-depth look at how serious issues with alcohol can become a nightmarish secret in the lives of some elite rugby players. This first appeared in the August issue of the magazine
Hitting the Bottle: An Investigation into Alcohol Issues in Rugby
JAMES HOLBECK played for the Wallabies seven times. But while his injury-hit career ended early, who knows what the centre could have done had it not been for one person: his alter ego ‘Mad Jimmy’.
After a few run-ins earlier in his career, he recalls an incident in 1997 when his Test aspirations were directly affected.
“I was warned by Rod Macqueen on a Wallaby trip to South America not to go out in the week of selection,” he says.
“Unfortunately I compromised on the very thing I’d dreamt of my whole life – playing for Australia – to go out for a few drinks… Which meant I walked into the hotel as the sun was rising. I was ultimately sent home from the tour.”
Self-control was hard for Holbeck to master. Now 44 and teetotal, he helps young players prepare to transition out of the game, working with Rugby Union Players Australia (RUPA). He’s had time to consider why his lifestyle went the way it did.
Related: A special podcast on our alcohol investigation
He explains: “At first, alcohol was something I used to feel more confident, then to be someone else, then to escape the pain of heartache. Then it simply became the role friends expected me to play.”
It all came to a head when his playing days were over, as he wrestled with the ghosts of unfulfilled dreams. “I had a particularly ugly night out which left me needing a trip to hospital. The next week a friend pulled me aside and said: ‘Mate, you’re like a dancing monkey that people wind up with alcohol and watch dance ‘til you fall over. Then they laugh at you’.”
There were other incidents Holbeck is ashamed of. The brutal truth was what he needed. Mad Jimmy was resigned to the trash. Now he educates young people about the impact of their choices and the fact that they even have any.
Because youngsters can feel helpless. And there are some elite players who will be battling through this themselves.
This article is not meant as an attack on alcohol – we believe in the sanctity of the clubhouse, team bonding and players letting off steam. Indeed, most months we review beer and promote days out in our Welcome To My Club feature. No one is quoted here preaching for abstinence. Nor will you see us slamming drinking in stadiums.
The intention of this report is to make you aware that some stars have serious struggles with the bottle. And to inform you of what help is or isn’t out there.
Because suffering alone can be hell.
UNDER THE SURFACE
HINTING AT a dark trade, one medic who has worked across professional sport tells Rugby World, anonymously: “Mixed into the bog-standard, end-of-season press release I have seen players who have had issues with drink or drugs being described as having a ‘bad back’ or a chronic issue.
“I’ve seen players who have gone into rehab and been transferred (to other teams). I’m not entirely sure how well disclosed their medical history has been. This is in union and league.”
While no one wants players’ personal medical history to be shared freely, we are being told there is pressure to axe some with a drink problem as soon as possible. No time to fix the human being, a bad few clubs have punted the issue.
The medic continues: “It’s not ‘let’s look after the player’. It’s ‘let’s ignore and bin them off as soon as we can’. It’s treated like an infectious disease. They think it’s like chickenpox and everyone can catch it. So (teams) end up doing entirely the wrong thing, isolating the player and making them more lonely, which will never solve the problem.
“It’s caveat emptor – ‘buyer beware’. The (old) club has no undertaking to declare anything. Medical history comes directly from the player and everything else you’d hope is caught in a medical.
“But there are some things you wouldn’t routinely look for. Some people outsource medicals and are mainly interested in hearts, lungs, joints and scars – things that are fairly obvious and light up for you, in terms of checking for insurance purposes.
“You wouldn’t normally test for liver function or take a hair or urine sample and dip for drugs. Because it’s expensive, all of these things. You’re more worried that someone’s knee is going to be dodgy or that they can’t flex a hip or raise their arm above their head.
“These are things people are worried about, rather than any addiction.”
With this we step into the national discussion on mental health. Addiction or alcohol dependency issues must be considered a mental health problem. But still for so many out there, drinking to excess is simply weakness.
Promoting any alternative view begins with accepting that rugby players are not superheroes. All last season, motivational speaker Tom Fitzsimons was addressing Premiership clubs on behalf of the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) about his experiences with alcohol addiction. He also mentors a handful of anonymous elite rugby players.
Fitzsimons says: “We have to be careful that we don’t take away the mystique of a rugby player, but we also need to get across that these men are flawed like any other man.”
According to the NHS’s Statistics on Alcohol, England 2018, in 2016-17, some 80,000 people were treated for problematic drinking alone.
In May a joint report from Alcohol Concern and Alcohol Research UK stated: “It is estimated that around 595,000 people in England alone are dependent on alcohol and in need of specialist support. But only around 108,000 are receiving treatment for their alcohol dependency. This has a significant impact not only on the individual but on their families; around 200,000 children live in a household with an alcohol-dependent carer.”
Alcohol-education charity Drinkaware also state on their site that “the NHS estimates that just under one in ten (8.7%) men in the UK and one in 20 (3.3%) UK women show signs of alcohol dependence.” Whichever number you pick, alcohol dependency and misuse is not something to be sniffed at. Are we to believe that elite sportspeople sidestep this national trend completely?
When Fitzsimons speaks, his story is arresting. He is brutally detailed in the description of his horrors. He tells of setting out to prove he was tougher than his father, who died of alcohol poisoning at 39, following a rare foray into drinking. And how he dived headlong into a heavy-drinking culture at 14. He rattles off a catalogue of incidents from his time as a “horrible, violent drunk”.
Despite having a good job in the construction industry, it all finally came crashing down for him at 31, when he found his bank account empty and his partner, who had tolerated so much hell, finally decided to leave with the kids.
Forced to face reality, he got fit – training for physical feats became the way he filled the afternoons that had been spent in the pub before – and decided to be honest about his past. Three years into sobriety, he did a presentation for a group of ‘troublemakers’ in a Barnsley school.
He saw that his story had hit home.
After then talking at Super League’s Warrington Wolves, CEO Karl Fitzpatrick saw the impact of his words and passed Fitzsimons’s details on to the RPA.
Related: Rugby World’s investigations
Explaining one of the myriad reasons why elite sportspeople could turn to the bottle to cope, Fitzsimons talks of the “bridge of expectation” – when so much is expected of you, but your sense of self-worth is so far below that level of external belief, something has to give.
“My bridge of expectation was so high, I self-destructed and drank myself into oblivion,” he says before giving an example from rugby. “I heard about this player who was put forward to play at international level and he just completely blew up. People thought it would be exactly what he needed.
“In fact, it was the worst thing you could have done to him because you hadn’t built up his confidence. That’s what we’ve got to work on. We have to work on the player’s self-belief, rather than everyone’s expectations of them.”
Fitzsimons knows there is a lot more to it than just that. Dr Philip Hopley is a consultant psychiatrist and the managing director of Cognacity, who run the 24-hour helpline for RPA members concerned about their mental wellbeing. He lays out some reasons.
“In this kind of space we’re often seeing individuals who might be self-medicating (for) some kind of emotional stress or life challenge,” he says. “So they don’t like the way that they’re feeling and transition would be a very common life situation.
“That might be dealing with injury, retiring from the sport, moving from one club to another, going through a process where you are working your way back or maybe you’ve been deselected, and those sorts of triggers can cause unpleasant emotions.
“A lot of young men struggle with their emotional vocabulary and guess what, they’ve had social experiences in the past where they drink a few units of alcohol which tends to help them relax, tends to help take their mind off what’s going on, and so they use this as an unhelpful and unhealthy coping strategy.”
Jason Robinson knows how this goes. The World Cup winner has spoken often about his days of drinking while a young star for Wigan Warriors in league.
Robinson says he masked his habit of going out up to four nights a week before playing, by performing so well. He wonders “how on earth did I do it?” when asked how he maintained such a level while drinking heavily. But he is sure of the reasons why he went out.
He was under a huge amount of pressure to perform from a young age, with pressure to fit in, and then there was significant friction in his personal life. Without a good support base, he would say yes to a night out with all-comers so he could avoid his “pain”. When he woke up, the pain was back.
The legendary stepper posits that in the future he would love to see an independent mental health professional being embedded into elite rugby clubs; someone who gets to know the team well enough that they can sense when something is off about any of them, but who does not answer to the club.
The reason for this is the fear of contracts being ripped up. Robinson tells Rugby World this is a genuine motivator to swallow your problem and never tell anyone. Our anonymous medic talks of a reticence amongst players to discuss such issues because reputations can kill a career.
When our medic talks of isolation, this is also borne out in everyday life. According to Dr Matthew Dunn, a senior lecturer on public health at Australia’s Deakin University, you are conditioned to feel apart and also that there are few shared experiences, even with addicts.
“With the support group I’m involved with, it’s very shocking to the guys when they realise that they’re not the only ones,” he says. “They are not unique and almost every session we remind everyone: you’re not a snowflake, you’re as average as everyone around this table. It normalises it more, so that people who feel like they have a problem can seek assistance.”
But Dunn also points out that with sportspeople we can fall into the trap of making heroes out of the few we hear speak out: “Not everyone is going to have that redemption-type story.”
DRAGGED UP FRONT
FITZSIMONS SAYS he has suffered the stigma of being ‘out’ as an alcoholic. He believes, despite the good that Alcoholics Anonymous can do for some, that the default of burying your drinking issue deep inside and staying anonymous will ultimately hold our society back.
There’s more. He says: “I would like to see in my lifetime that we get to a point where we have more people – and not just like me – that are very passionate about promoting recovery. We will finally get to a point where any player can go, ‘I’m struggling with this guys, I’ve got an addiction and I need to get it sorted.’
“I don’t think that’s in the next ten or 15 years. A few things I’d like to change before that happens. The anonymous thing has to drop and the clubs’ reaction will have to change as well.”
Of course there are reasons almost no one wants to come out. There is a fear of being hounded in the media and also crushing your resale value – or contracts getting ripped up, as mentioned above.
One man who knows how hard it is to deal with the public glare is Zac Guildford. Having become an All Black at 20, Guildford was admitting to issues with alcoholism just a few years later. He would take years came to terms with his father’s sudden death – he passed away in the stands at the Junior World Cup. At the same time he was thrust into an intense national spotlight. Until he was into his late 20s, his lifestyle overshadowed his playing career.
“Our world is supposed to be full of rainbows and sunshine and we’re supposed to earn good money, but it’s not the reality at all,” Guildford says of hidden stresses. “I see it as especially hard for rugby players, because the stereotype is of us as somebody that’s not supposed to have problems. So there’s a stigma around it.”
But how hard is it regaining ‘trust’ when you’ve had such public issues?
“It’s been really hard. After losing my Waratahs contract in 2016, I went back and I played rugby for free for about a year. I was actually working on my grandparents’ farm, then took up a job in Hamilton so I could play some sevens, which led to me getting a semi-professional contract.
“I thought that something would then pop up soon after in terms of Super Rugby, but no one out there wanted to trust me again. So I went back to where I was a year before and I played sevens again and then was lucky that the owner of Nevers (in France’s ProD2) had a bit of faith in me and he gave me an option if I wanted to go and join the club. It was the only option on the table so I took it.”
Guildford’s determination to salvage a respectable career in the game is to be admired. However, as the top end of the sport turns away from him, the back-three player feels he should give a warning. He acknowledges that treatment of mental health issues has come a long way in the game, but he feels there is still more to do.
A few, he says, still play lip service to the idea. He would like to see more done within clubs in terms of professional development and “tapping into the brain”.
If anything else, it may help some pros when the game is finally over.
WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT
DUE TO the stigma and the risk to future earnings, finding current players to offer up their personal (anonymous) experiences is understandably tough. Nevertheless, several people contacted considered ex-players an at-risk group.
“There are many players who have to deal with social issues after rugby,” says 37-cap former Springboks wing Stefan Terblanche. He represents South Africa Rugby Legends, a non-profit group of ex-Boks who band together for events but also, it transpires, to keep an eye on each other’s wellbeing after retirement.
“We did a study in 2015,” Terblanche continues. “We did a questionnaire and it was anonymous, but we found that (retired professional rugby players) do struggle with anxiety, sleeplessness, alcohol abuse and eating disorders – much more than the average person of the same age.
“There is certainly a correlation there between retirement and these social issues that ex-players have to deal with. We see it more and more in South Africa because there’s financial strain on you. You earn £10,000 a month, for instance, and the next month all of a sudden you have to find a way of making some money. If you make some bad decisions it puts you under pressure and before you know it the little bit of money you had put away during your career can easily dry up.”
Terblanche says only a few members have sought help, but he is certain there are others out there. The problem is that these are hard, proud men. And while money is held up as a regular sore spot for ex-players, it can be more existential.
At Rugby Players Ireland (RPI), Dr Ella McCabe is player development manager. On the causes for concern with former players, she says: “I think one major piece we’ve noted is that when people’s entire identity is focused around being a rugby player, when that part of their life finishes up, it can feel like there’s a big void. It’s a risky time in terms of what will fill that void and all the coping strategies can kick in at that point.
“Our whole programme is about players developing their identity off the pitch right the way through their career. It’s the same around the sense of belonging because exiting the game can be quite a lonely experience.”
While Dunn notes the fact that not all open alcoholics get happy endings, and Fitzsimons acknowledges that many of us are conditioned to internalise anxieties, both understand the power of shared stories. It can even be more powerful to hear from those who blew their chance to play at the top level.
Many would take notice when Peter Mirrielees says: “My drinking left a path of destruction and with a competitive streak being added with alcohol, things weren’t going to work out.”
Having resolved to change his life three years ago, the former Otago hooker, 35, feels he has taken command of his mindset. And the reason behind that? He felt like the lifestyle he had cultivated for himself would ultimately lead to his family choosing to abandon him.
Mirrielees opens up: “Firstly, I put myself into drug, alcohol and addiction counselling where I found the source of what made me drink the way I did. Then I went from around 200 friends to about ten and I had to change my surroundings, with everything focused on keeping my family together.
“I lost my chance of a full-time Highlanders contract because of my drinking. But once I got rid of emotional stressors I did not need to get wasted.”
Now running a 24-hour gym with his wife, the father of three has offered confidential lifestyle advice to players, friends and clients. But having recognised there were deeper issues he had previously ignored, he knows
it is the emotional torment that some try to drown out with booze.
He asks straight out if you would stand by as a mate leant heavily on the bottle, saying: “Are they trying to deal with something? Are we a good enough friend to sit someone down and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ before they go down their own road of destruction?”
HELP AT HAND
ACCORDING TO Dr Hopley, the mere fact someone has got in touch through the confidential hotline is a red flag.
Most often, people seek professional help because those around them – partners or relatives – are negatively impacted by the drinker’s lifestyle and cannot take it any more. Sometimes, rarely, help is sought because someone has crossed the line, legally.
Talking through the process when you call Cognacity, Hopley says that when you pick up the phone and call the number, it is answered by a trained telephone counsellor who’s used to dealing with crisis situations. Once they have a brief summary of the situation, they patch that through to whoever is on-call at that time – for example, a consultant psychiatrist like Hopley.
That person would call the in-need individual back and talk for up to an hour to determine the acuteness of the situation while also taking in relevant background information on the caller’s lifestyle, what support they’ve got and what big challenges are coming up.
Next could be a form of intervention, which is usually psychological therapy, with a psychologist or a cognitive behavioural therapist. The aim is to help that person understand their problems and identify triggers. Ultimately, the aim is to modify drinking habits.
A whole host of player associations – MyPlayers South Africa, RUPA, RPI, the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association and New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association – have Player Development Managers in place. Most of these have access to confidential counselling. On the Islands, Pacific Rugby Players push education programmes whilst hustling to set up better services for members in France.
Meanwhile, Dr McCabe and RPI have worked with International Rugby Players and World Rugby to develop a mental health module for team doctors that will provide basic education on what mental health means, common signs, symptoms (including of alcohol use disorders), screening and referral pathways.
Having made alcohol a big focus in the past season, and staged seminars on problem gambling the year before, the RPA intend to have a broader focus on addictive behaviours next season. But they are keen to point out that their funding for any future services comes from the Restart charity.
Hopley is pleased that the RPA’s recent ‘Lift the Weight’ campaign generated an increase in players calling their line for help. More referrals have come from club doctors too. But he also reiterates that the viability of any add-on services comes down to money.
Every players’ body mentioned above would love to provide even better resources. And even then, not all major nations have a truly independent body.
In March, the Scottish Rugby Union launched their ‘Rugby for Life’ scheme. Following a mandate from the board to do more for players’ mental wellbeing, their HR department utilised “advice and expertise from a cross-section of mental health charities, professional organisations and academic experts” in order to “better understand the impact of mental health issues and learn from examples of best practice”.
As commendable as this is, many in the North feel something is missing without the players having their own body, separate from the union.
“I’m aware of a few serious incidents within Scottish rugby,” one former pro player, who is still heavily involved in the game, tells Rugby World. “There needs to be an independent Scottish Players’ Association – an RPA-style organisation. Especially for those in professional or semi-professional rugby, like the upcoming Super 6. There isn’t anything like the excellent RPA here in Scotland.
“Outside of rugby, life happens – deaths, divorces, children, sickness, relationships. What needs to change is the attitude from the SRU that an SPA organisation is a bad idea that wrests control from them. Such an organisation would give longevity to more players and they would be in a better mental and physical state to give their all for their club and their country.”
THINGS ARE moving fast in the mental health sphere in rugby union. Hard work already being done must be applauded while current or future initiatives must be given the oxygen they need to succeed.
But the urge to pretend everyone who needs help is getting it must be resisted. Depression, anxiety, fear, addiction… these cannot be grounds for a shredded contract or a trade made in bad faith while a player is still in need of help. And players: there is help out there.
- Professional players in England can reach Cognacity at 01373 858080.
- Mental health charity Mind’s infoline is on 0300 123 3393.
- If you feel you or someone you know may need help, your GP can recommend local services. You can also find a range of services at www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-support-services