As many as 15 per cent of New Zealand's professional rugby players may be wrestling with stress, anxiety, substance abuse and behavioural and mental health issues.
Performance and selection anxiety, loneliness, relationship stress, financial concerns and a lack of social support make rugby players predisposed to suffering behavioural and mental health challenges, says players' union boss Rob Nichol.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew yesterday ordered an independent assessment to look at how the NZRU treated its players, particularly young ones, after All Black Julian Savea was charged with the assault of his partner.
"Without judging the rights or wrongs of this case, we are concerned that this is another incident involving a young player. We need to find out whether we are doing enough to help these young men cope with the pressures of the professional game," he said.
"Overall, we've got a large group of young men who generally do a very good job for themselves and the teams they play for. But we've had a number of instances in the past 12 months so I think it's just time to check that what we are doing is right."
Little work has been done on how young players cope, but a players' association survey of former players found many struggled with life after retirement. The survey of 123 former professional players found they suffered from:
Feelings of depression or despair (35 per cent).
High levels of anxiety and stress (30 per cent).
Alcohol or substance abuse (23 per cent).
Relationship issues (20 per cent).
Aggression issues (13 per cent).
"We believe that athletes do have a higher propensity to have challenges in this [area] than normal people," Mr Nichol told the Herald yesterday.
"We do a lot physically for athletes but we don't do enough mentally."
Over a five-year period up to 2011, 81 players sought professional help for off-field issues. While incidents such as Savea's alleged assault of his partner hit the headlines, many others were averted through successful intervention, said Mr Nichol.
"The reality is we are always going to have players who come into the professional rugby ranks who have challenges. We just need to get our heads around that and say 'okay, how do we deal with it'? When we stack up against other sporting codes, we do a lot. We do pretty well, but we are the first to say we need to do better."
Professional rugby players go through an induction process that includes advice on personal risk - namely alcohol, drugs and women. They role-play various scenarios and discuss how to deal with them. Personal development officers are on hand to help at the unions and Super Rugby franchises.
There is an employee helpline players can call anonymously, and they can access free counselling sessions.
"There's a comprehensive network and range of expertise available," Mr Nichol said.
The difficulty is convincing players to access it. "It is a two-way thing. For every good initiative we have going on you look for reciprocation from the athlete."
Julian Savea's statement
"Thank you all for coming. There was an incident last Sunday and I've been charged with common assault. Whilst I can't go in to the details because it is now before the courts, I understand that the details will come out in due course.
"But I will say that my partner and I did have an argument, I did some things that are wrong and that I shouldn't have done and I apologise for that ... [pauses] To my partner and her family I just want to say that I'm sorry to hurt someone that you love and care so much for. To be in this situation, I know it's hurting them and it's definitely hurting me, so I apologise to them ... And although I do not want to make this about the Hurricanes and the NZRU and the All Blacks, I do represent them.
"And just a few key points from me, I just want you guys to know that I'm not making excuses for myself, I know what I did was wrong and I'm taking steps to make sure this will never happen again and my main concern after all of this is making sure that my partner and baby are okay after all of this.
"Thank you for listening and thanks for coming."
Top rugby players in trouble
All Black forward Sione Lauaki granted diversion after admitting an assault charge. In 2010, Lauaki is fined $800 for another assault.
Former All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu pleads guilty to assaulting his wife. He is discharged without conviction.
Chiefs back Soseni Anesi fined and granted diversion after pleading guilty to assault.
Blues halfback Taniela Moa charged with assault after throwing a bottle that hit a woman at the Marist Rugby Club. He was granted diversion.
All Black forward Adam Thomson cleared of assault charges after his partner admits she overreacted by calling 111 during an argument at a motel following a wedding.
Taranaki player and Samoa sevens rep Paul Perez issued with a deportation order after being convicted of assaulting his partner.
Canterbury ITM Cup player Paea Fa'anunu is fined $1000 for assaulting his partner.
Naked, bleeding All Black Zac Guildford staggers into a bar in Rarotonga and punches two holidaymakers. Guildford vows to give up drinking, but in January this year he is again in trouble, after punching a partygoer at a Christchurch house. Guildford confesses he is an alcoholic and seeks treatment.
An unnamed former All Black is convicted of assaulting his son with a leather belt. The boy received minor bruising to his shoulder and redness and bruising to his lower leg. The conviction is later overturned by the high court.
Former All Black Stephen Bachop convicted of assaulting his partner, a member of the public and resisting arrest. He was discharged without penalty after paying a $500 donation to Women's Refuge.
All Black back Rene Ranger cleared of an assault charge after an altercation in a Northland pub car park that left a man unconscious.
All Black wing Julian Savea charged with assaulting his partner.