After the final whistle

Keys Road Reserve

By James Wong

The first story James King tells me is the same story he relates to a room full of sponsors and guests at the Moorabbin Rugby Club a few minutes later.

It’s about why, after nearly a decade of travelling the world as a professional rugby player, he chose to return to this patch of grass tucked away in an industrial suburb of Melbourne.

It’s about love, it’s about family.

King has recently returned from perhaps the pinnacle of his rugby career – international tests representing the USA – but he will not be chasing another contract. He is in a place that every professional athlete finds themselves eventually; that point in their career when they know things are coming to an end.

“I’m looking to start winding down my rugby, focusing a bit more on those things that mean more to me now – my family,” said King.

As he goes through this transition what are the lessons that he and others have learned about life after that final whistle blows. What will they miss, what do they regret, and what does the future hold?

King played for a number of professional teams in his career, including the Blues and Rebels in Super Rugby, but never quite made it big. He says his friends joke that he’s “the most successful non-playing rugby player they’ve ever met.”

“I did a lot of training, a lot of holding bags. We laugh about it and it’s true.”

In the end it was injuries and a body that couldn’t stand the immense physicality required to play rugby at the highest level that proved too much to overcome. But it is not the competition, the glory or the pay-check he misses most about professional rugby, it is the relationships and comradery forged with teammates in the heat of battle.

“The hardest thing is missing the comradery with the boys. I always enjoyed building that bond.

“When I left boarding school I thought I’d be in a bikie gang or something if it wasn’t for rugby,” King joked.

“Not because I was a thug but because I enjoyed that loyalty with your mates and between the boys.”

No regrets

Rugby careers can end for a number of reasons and Tom Chamberlain knows better than most how quickly that can happen. His was ended by a severe concussion that leaves him with constant headaches to this day.

“It was a bit of a shock, it was just one game, one big blow, one knee to the head. Once I realised I couldn’t play anymore it was pretty devastating. Everything you know about the dream you’re chasing, it ends.

“When you’re playing footy you don’t realise how good it is.”

Chamberlain has since finished a university degree and now works at a top accounting firm. He has no regrets over how things turned out.

“I don’t have any regrets. I did everything I set out to do, I did every to achieve my dream.

“[The concussion] was nothing to do with what I did, so I’m pretty happy with how things went.”

King admits he could have done some things differently but he too doesn’t hold any regrets.

“There are things that I would have done differently if I could go back… but I don’t have regrets, I really don’t.”

“I think in my older years I enjoy the game a lot more now because I keep in the back of my mind why I play the game. I know that if I don’t play a good game this week, it’s just a game, things are going to work out. It’s taken a long time to figure that out.”

Lessons learned

Rugby holds many lessons for those that play it at the highest level. Patrick Phibbs learned these lessons during his career and now teaches them to others. The former Australian sevens representative also earned over 70 caps for the ACT Brumbies and is now the Australian Rugby Union Players Association Player Relations Manager.

His advice for retiring players: Start preparing for life after rugby early, learn that rugby isn’t the be all and end all, and don’t be afraid to fail.

“Make the most of the time you’ve got in rugby to help set yourself up after rugby.

“One of the biggest things I learned was that there’s always the next week, the next day, the next hour.

“Try things. It’s okay to fail in things, whether it be business, your rugby career, anything; because it’s definitely not the end of anything. Get out there and try. Be comfortable in trying to fail, because if you fail it’s not the end of who you are as a person.”

For King, the biggest lesson he learned playing rugby was the value of respect.

It is clear that he is a man that commands a great deal of respect. All it takes is the raising of one large finger to send teammates sheepishly scurrying out of the empty changing room in which we are conducting our interview.

It is the respect James learned on the rugby field that allows him to appreciate what it will take to excel in his future career in construction management.

“I used to look at those in the corporate world and think, ‘bugger that, you’re mad’ and then you enter the workforce you realise how hard it is. I respect that a lot now.

“I’m just a cog in the machine at the moment. I’m trying to better myself. You earn those stripes, and that’s what it is like in rugby; you’ve been around long enough and you earn that respect.”

Towards the future

Last week James was again selected in the USA squad for two upcoming tests against Italy and Russia, but Keys Road Reserve in Moorabbin will remain his rugby home. He is at peace with his rugby career.

“At the end of the day, I’ve had a pretty good run. I’m pretty content with what I’ve achieved so I think it’s time for me to focus on the next chapter and my family.”

His professional career may be winding down but his love of the game keeps him lacing up his boots every weekend to play club rugby.

So why did James come back to Moorabbin?

His coach Justin Carroll has his own theory.

“He’s a dyed in the wool club man. He’s always respected where he’s come from and even though he’s reached international level with the USA he still knows that the contribution club rugby made to his development as a rugby player is really important to him.”

That may be the case, but ultimately, it was family that brought him back. His decision to put his young son before anything else.

“I chose the Rams because of the culture they have here. The emphasis on family. Now that I’m a father I want my son to be around. Whether he’ll remember or not I don’t know, but I want to be able to say “I took you to rugby and you loved it.”