Is Rugby Turning The Lights Off On Players Careers

By Greg Mumm

On Monday night the Four Corners program ran a special episode title ‘After the Game’, investigating the challenges facing athletes in life after sport.

Along with Owen Finegan, Brendon Cannon spoke of the difficulty of feeling like you are left in the dark at the end of your career, like the lights have been turned off of the life you previously lived as an elite rugby player.

With the impending decision on the fate of one Australian Super Rugby Franchise, the question that is on a lot of peoples lips is are we turning the lights off on players careers, and if so what is the impact on them and the game in general?

I’m not going to enter in to the performance question in this article, I have my own views which I will share if you run in to me, but I will try to answer the off-field question based on my work at The Final Whistle and in athlete transition.

In Australia there are approx. 250 professional rugby players across all teams and formats, supported by another 250 or so in academy programs, with around 100 staff directly involved in the on-field performance of these teams. The decision to axe one team will therefore directly affect about 75 – 85 of these people. For a small community in the Australian sporting environment that is a large part of our tribe.

The Rugby Union Players Association are working tirelessly to support all players with the resources they have, but in my opinion there should be a collective response from our community to this challenge.

Everyone affected by this could experience the following hardships;

  • Uncertainty around their career on and off the field
  • Financial challenges
  • A high chance of relocation interstate or internationally (Especially with the Rebels and Force in the firing line)
  • A significant impact on their partners and families
  • Mental stress relating to the uncertainty of their futures

These challenges are common in all significant career transitions, though sport and particularly rugby in Australia exacerbate this for all involved. Why? Because of the unique work environment rugby exists in within the broader employment landscape, including;

  1. If you are a player, there are only 8 – 10 comparative positions available in the country, 4 if you are a coach.
  2. You are required to move inter-state or internationally to find work
  3. Your average career length is 6 – 7 years

Add to this the fact that the modern game requires you to commit to almost 24-7 availability when you add in weekend commitments, player appearances and travel, and you will see the differences to a normal change in jobs.

In the Four Corners episode, not only athletes from rugby backgrounds, but athletes across all sports (Lauren Jackson from Basketball, Courtenay Dempsey from AFL and Cricketer Nathan Bracken), all spoke of feeling like they were forgotten, left alone or ‘put out to pasture’ when they finished playing.

Whether the players and staff affected by the Super Rugby decision continue to be involved in the game or not – rugby has the opportunity to unite around not only them, but all its athletes and members in general.

In the work we do across Australia, New Zealand and the UK, Rugby is perceived in the market place as having the best Alumni, the strongest networks and the clearest link between sport and off-field career. There is the potential for this to become Rugby’s defining position in the Australian market and internationally, as a sport that looks after the holistic interests of it athletes, both during and after their careers.

Throughout history in many arena’s including the military and education systems, rugby was a lesson in life to build character and connections that would carry that individual in to their career and positions of leadership within the community.

Rugby has the highest percentage of athletes who are university trained or currently studying. They make fantastic employees, particularly if they are educated on the options they have, given some experience are mentored in to an understanding of their career options and how to translate the skills they have learned in the game.

The Rugby Business Network in Australia works hard at creating business opportunities through the sport, but through this and all supporters of the game there is the opportunity to turn the lights on, to highlight the strength of our game and the quality of the citizens within it.

Each part of the game can play a part in this, Schoolboys, Super Rugby Franchises, Supporters and Sponsors, Classic Wallabies and The Rugby Foundation.

By putting an arm around our members at each transition they make through their rugby career, and helping them develop both on and off the field by using our networks to develop career options outside of the game, we can reduce the anxiety cause by the current uncertainty, and also the general uncertainty athletes experience from year to year, injury to injury and at each selection meeting.

Great communities draw together in times of need to support their own, to provide certainty, guidance and strength to those doing it tough. This could be that defining moment for rugby, that turning point where we define our values, our vision for who we are not only on the field but also who we are after the final whistle blows.

Rather than just seeing this as turning the lights off on playing careers, why don’t we shine a light on our values as a sport and what we are prepared to do to support all our athletes and members.

Greg Mumm is the Managing Director of The Final Whistle, who partner with individuals and organisations that understand and are passionate supporters of career education and transition programs for athletes. Learn more about The Final Whistle here