Recently retired All Black Israel Dagg has given a sobering warning to rising rugby stars, penning a heartfelt open letter less than two months after his unexpected retirement from the game.
The 66-test utility back announced his immediate retirement in April, after a long-term knee injury hadn't allowed him to train and play at an elite level for more than a season.
Dagg, now 31, made his debut as an 18-year-old for his Hawke's Bay provincial side and ended up representing the All Blacks over eight years, as well as the Highlanders and Crusaders.
In the letter, posted to the New Zealand Rugby Players Association Facebook page, Dagg opens up about his struggles with mental health - describing his 2015 World Cup omission as his "darkest time".
"I sat in my son's room, ate a whole packet of chocolate brownies and played PlayStation for two whole days, but now I look back on it and laugh.
"Now that I have kids, I have a better perspective and know there are heaps of people worse off than me. I have had things happen in my career and you think I am done, but the sun still comes up and you are still breathing."
Dagg warned players to "put themselves out there" but also to prepare for life after rugby.
"Make sure you prepare for your playing days to finish because the sooner you start to prepare, the easier it is to manage when it does. I was lucky mine didn't happen until I was 30, but you don't know when it will happen," he said.
"As cliché as it sounds, put your money away, be smart, buy a house, explore investments with knowledgeable experts and surround yourself with good people. You have these times of stress and uncertainty, but just ride it out, trust your planning for life after rugby and it will work out in the end."
Dagg also lifts the lid on the injury that would send his career on a "downward spiral".
"I hurt my knee in the 2017 pre-season against the Hurricanes in Waverley when I stood in a pothole on the field and hyperextended my knee. It was a downward spiral from there. Three weeks later against the Reds I did my PCL and had a meniscus tear," he wrote.
Despite a brief comeback, Dagg realised his All Blacks days were over and headed abroad.
"I knew my knee was sore but thought it would be okay and I really wanted the experience of playing overseas, so I headed to Canon in Japan. I played a few games and in my final game it was so sore I couldn't even kick the ball. My knee was unbearable. I was in a deep black hole after that game.
"Rugby is cut-throat and when you are done, someone else comes along and takes your place. So, I am grateful that I have had great support from New Zealand Rugby and the Crusaders allowing me to finish my journey with them and ease my way out.
"It is daunting when you retire, that's your income about to be affected and it is a scary feeling, but during this career I have been able to set myself up. The transition will never be easy, but knowing you have things behind you like your house and your investments makes the transition easier."
"It is great to have mentors and advisors outside of the rugby circle.
This is why I try and tell the lads to make the most of it because when it is over it is over."
Dagg was part of the victorious World Cup side in 2011 and claimed back-to-back Super Rugby championships with the Crusaders in 2017 and 2018.
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