Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Special report: Elite level always under the gun

Experts who work with top players say drinking problems surface after a win, a loss or time away from mates. The second in a three-part series on how rugby is grappling with alcohol issues.

All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka (right), with All Black Zac Guildford, says big sessions on the booze are no longer the norm. Photo / Sarah Ivey
All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka (right), with All Black Zac Guildford, says big sessions on the booze are no longer the norm. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Statistically, the number of rugby players seeking assistance for alcohol and drug issues is higher when compared with other corporate walks of life, rendering the oft quoted line that the problems in rugby are merely reflective of New Zealand society only partially true.

No one disputes that New Zealand has a society-wide, binge-drinking culture but are there factors unique to professional rugby that increase the likelihood of young men abusing alcohol?

In the past five years, 25 players have sought professional help for alcohol and drug issues. The New Zealand Rugby Union and the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association are clients of Wellington-based human resource firm, Instep, which runs an employee assistance programme.

Since 2008, 81 employees from the NZRU and members of the NZRPA have been through Instep's programme and of those, 25 sought help with alcohol and/or other drug issues. The players have come from all levels of the professional spectrum, with 15 per cent entering the programme as All Blacks.

"Rugby is generally not too different from the rest of society in terms of the issues," says Instep managing director Matt Beattie. "The big difference would be that the people involved often take longer to appreciate they have a problem and are more reluctant to seek help.

"Sportspeople at the elite level often don't see life in the broadest sense. They do not expect to counter problems that they perceive to be for older people and nor do they feel they will need help to deal with them.

"There is not sufficient evidence to believe professional rugby players are more prone [to alcohol issues] - but there may be an issue with their ability to seek or accept help or believe they have a problem."

The other factor that has to be considered is the timing of most alcohol-related offences. With obvious exceptions, the majority of players who commit high profile alcohol-related offences tend to do so in the off-season, between campaigns or when they are injured.

Ali Williams: I was a binge drinker

"In the camp environment there are rules, they don't drink because teammates take them on the journey," says Beattie. "They go home, catch up with school mates and may feel some pressure to prove their manly status."

It's possibly not a surprise that the worst offending in terms of alcohol abuse tends to occur when players are out of camp, celebrating a big win or dealing with a landmark defeat.

The intensity of professional players' working lives is hard for others to comprehend. The stress is considerable. The expectation within high performance teams is relentless. The pressure to perform is intense and the public and media scrutiny never ending. They are taken to emotional peaks and troughs and there is a basic need for elite players to unleash tension from time to time and historically that has been done through a big night on the booze. A gap in the rugby calendar or an opportunity to celebrate a successful campaign or series - some players still jump on it.

"It is the New Zealand way to cool down and relax with a session on the grog," says All Black mental skills coach, Gilbert Enoka. "A lot of [drinking] is related to the high pressure environment. If someone has a propensity to use alcohol as a coping mechanism then it may be the environment results in them using it more."

The past two World Cups have both thrown up classic examples of players struggling with the pressure and turning to drink as a means of release. In 2011 it was Cory Jane and Israel Dagg who went out a few days before the quarter-final and drank heavily. They both said they felt the effects of the nation's expectation.

In 2007, Doug Howlett ended up in trouble with the police for vandalising cars at Heathrow Airport. The shock and disappointment of that defeat was considerable and it was possibly a relief for management that only one player went off the rails.

"After we lost in 2007 I didn't drink that night," says Ali Williams, one of the few who actually played well in the quarter-final. "I knew I was so emotionally fragile that it could go pear-shaped. But put me after a championship win - I am everyone's mate.

"For me the biggest learning is, what is your emotional level going into a drink? If you are in an angry, frustrated, pissed off mood when you drink, things can go wrong. But if you are relaxed, enjoying the buzz, it can be a lot different."

Clearly, not all players have the same experience or self-awareness of Williams when it comes to alcohol. Many of his senior peers do: those older players whose careers began in less professional times have learned how to adapt and moderate their drinking.

They haven't cut it out entirely, but they now have an instinctive sense of when they can have a few and when it might be appropriate to let the reins off.

Enoka says that senior players have played a major role in improving standards and attitudes towards alcohol within the All Blacks and most likely that has infiltrated through all levels of the game. They now set a stronger example than their peers did when he first came into the All Blacks.

"I have now entered my 13th year [with the All Blacks] and the differences now [in alcohol consumption] compared with then are considerable," says Enoka. "Big sessions on the booze are no longer the highlight of the week and the management and leadership groups have worked hard to normalise alcohol.

"But there are still incidents, it takes time to change a culture. Habits are not easily shifted. New Zealand for a long time was rugby, racing and beer."

Being tasked with eradicating alcohol issues from professional rugby may seem a little like Heracles being tasked with cleaning out the Augean Stables. But despite the enormity of the task, the NZRU says it will never stop trying to educate and help players.

NZRU head of professional rugby Neil Sorensen says the continued presence of players in courtrooms and in the case of Zac Guildford, a rehabilitation centre, only reinforces the need to improve efforts.

"We are contracting a lot of young men who are often being paid three or four times the minimum wage," says Sorensen. "I think we are morally obliged to educate them and support them about alcohol. Whether they like it or not, they are in the public eye and they are under pressure. Just like Zac [Guildford] we know there are a lot of other young players with alcohol issues.

"If they go out with their friends who are not professional players and their mates get up to some high jinks and are in trouble for it, their standing probably rises.

"But if our players indulge in high-jinks, they will be in trouble and have some choices to make. We try to explain to them that they can continue to live their life that way but that they will probably not be able to pursue a career as a professional player if they do. We don't shy away from that."

The series

Today:
Ali Williams: I was a binge drinker
Blues captain says professionalism and the length of the season mean boozing no longer an option.

Public opinion growing for ban on booze sponsorship in sports
More than four in 10 people say it's time to ban alcohol sponsorship in sports, a number alcohol control advocate groups see as encouraging.

Yesterday:
How the system failed Zac Guildford
The sad saga of Guildford and how the New Zealand rugby system failed him.

Rugby's battle with the booze
Drinking is the evil rugby can't flush - 25 high-level players have sought professional help for alcohol and drug issues in the past five years.

Tomorrow: All Blacks' drinking culture surprise.

- NZ Herald

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