Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Lost generation a thing of the past

Former Counties and Samoa midfielder George Leaupepe this week said he felt abandoned by New Zealand Rugby after his playing career ended. There’s little doubt there were gaps in the early days of professionalism but, as Gregor Paul reports, New Zealand is now a world leader on and off the field.
New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It's hardly ideal that New Zealand has a lost generation of former professional players. But at least it's only one.

And lost generation is probably an exaggeration. Not every player who experienced those early professional years was broken by it. Many thrived in retirement, using the money they unexpectedly earned and heightened profile from playing a game they loved to set themselves up.

Others were thrown initially when they retired, but came to settle into some kind of normality.

A number, though, clearly felt lost and abandoned when their playing services were no longer required and didn't cope - really didn't cope - and were left financially strapped and emotionally damaged.

No one knows the exact size of these groups but New Zealand Rugby Players' Association boss Rob Nichol guess-timates that about half of the first wave of professional players came out of the game in good shape.

Of those who initially struggled, probably about half, he estimates, found work and personal contentment in time without serious calamity.

That would suggest, best guess, that about one-quarter of the pioneers of the professional game in New Zealand experienced significant distress once they stopped playing.

Nichol's basing these numbers on a survey the NZRPA conducted of retired players in 2012. The association wanted to try to build an accurate picture of how former players had adapted to post-rugby life.

What the survey found was that nearly one-third of those who responded said they suffered feelings of anxiety and depression after they stopped playing. About the same number felt they lost their sense of identity and fell into financial hardship. Nearly 25 per cent admitted to abusing alcohol and other substances and 13 per cent had aggression issues.

The survey also revealed that almost 50 per cent of respondents were earning $200,000 or more in their final contract as a player, but half of all players were earning less than $60,000 a year in the first 24 months after they retired.

The results highlighted how hard it is for players to transition into a meaningful post-rugby life. But while the picture wasn't overly encouraging, it wasn't surprising.

Despite the impression that may have been drawn in the last week - which saw former Super Rugby player George Leaupepe accuse New Zealand Rugby of abandoning him once he gave up playing and comments by former All Blacks prop Craig Dowd that the NZRPA is interested only in the highest profile players - the welfare system for players is arguably world leading.

"Have we got it absolutely right?" asks NZR chief executive Steve Tew. "No, of course we haven't and, while it's a noble goal to imagine that every player will come out of the game and thrive, you can't beat statistics.

"I look at my own situation and look at the guys with whom I went to university. Some have been really successful, others haven't been quite as successful and some have failed. In any cohort, there will be people who fail but that doesn't mean that, in this case, the university failed."

The important thing, says Tew, is that the system tried. And simply by creating holistic development systems that recognised players as people and not just athletes, New Zealand rugby is miles ahead of other, more established professional sports markets.

Shortly before Tew took up his former post as chief executive of the Canterbury Rugby Union at the birth of professionalism, he travelled to the United States and other places to study the set-ups in others professional sports.

"What struck me was the appalling statistics that come out of those sports [post-career]. I could immediately see that we had to make it a priority to look after the players from the start because it was apparent in the States that the horse had bolted.

"That was a big priority for us at the Crusaders in those early years and it was in tune with the thoughts of the people who were there - Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen, Robbie Deans and Steve Lancaster. They were all concerned about the players' lives and were interested in growing them as athletes and young men. It's something I am passionate about and, if you remember the context and speed at which rugby turned professional, looking back, I think most would say we did a fair job."

Inevitably there were going to be players who wouldn't cope with life after they finished playing in the early years. Not every Super Rugby team had the same broad view as the Crusaders and the NZRPA wasn't formed until 1999 when it started to become apparent, given the scale of problems afflicting players in the transition to professionalism, that a specialist body was necessary.

There were cracks in those early days and players such as Leaupepe fell through them. But cracks are better than gaping holes and, 20 years on, New Zealand rugby can feel some degree of confidence that those players who run into financial trouble don't do so for lack of advice. Similarly, those who struggle emotionally don't lack access to support.

These days, the NZRPA tour schools. Former All Blacks halfback Kevin Senio will get to just about every first XV player in the country and give them broad-brush guidance on what they will need to think about and do to make it to the next level.

All contracted provincial and Super Rugby players have access to a professional development manager who can facilitate with educational and work opportunities and build post-career plans. The players receive financial advice, medical advice and, if they need it, counselling on relationship issues.

Far from being negligent or uninterested, the NZRPA and NZR have jointly created one of the most progressive and nurturing work environments in New Zealand.

The NZRPA has even created what it calls its Rugby Club to better support and connect alumni. It's why, for every Leaupepe, there is estimated to be 10 former players who have built a better post-rugby life than the one they imagined or were arguably destined for before they landed a professional contract.

"I think now we have a set up where players can prepare themselves the best they can to make the transition away from playing," says Nichol. "They all have access to a personal development manager which we have rolled out across the country. The most challenging part for most players is that they miss the camaraderie of the game."

Timeline

1995: Rugby turns professional after the World Cup and after Kerry Packer came close to launching a rival, unsanctioned professional competition that would have been the death of test football.
1996: Super 12 starts as the world's first professional competition.
1999: New Zealand Rugby Players' Association is formed after it becomes apparent players needed a unified body to represent their interests.
2001: NZRPA creates personal development programme that sees personal development managers hired to advise and guide players on post-career issues and opportunities.
2005: NZRPA and NZR sign a joint agreement that 32.4 per cent of the latter's revenue will be channelled towards paying the players.
2013: NZRPA launches Rugby Club - an alumni network to connect and support former players.
2015: NZRPA hires Kevin Senio to focus on advising and helping promising players prepare for a potential professional career in rugby.

- Herald on Sunday

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