Helping to tackle a new career


Life after Rugby

I remember when I first approached Hamish, I asked him for help with an exit strategy because of the frustration I was experiencing with my bad injury run. I just wanted to pack up and head home and wanted him to help me do it quickly and properly. This would have been a terrible thing to do financially, and was not the note I would have wanted to leave on. But I wasn’t thinking straight and didn’t care. Hamish sat with me for over an hour and calmly ran through different options which he saw available to me. That first meeting with Hamish was crucial for me, as were others that followed. It gave me a different, clearer perspective of my situation and my options, and stopped me from making a rushed and emotional decision which I would have really regretted.

Rua Tipoki e-mail to Irupa CEO Niall Woods on his return to New Zealand

FOR THOSE still mired in the naïve conclave of the amateur era, this here’s a fickle game. Admiration and hero worship can very quickly disappear in a puff of smoke once the music stops. Bob Casey noted succinctly in his column in this newspaper last Monday: “Rugby isn’t soccer; there aren’t millions to be earned.”

The headline with the piece suggested many players don’t have a Plan B once the bell tolls.

However, thanks to the Irish rugby players body, that is not necessarily true.

In January 2008 Irish Rugby Union Players Association chief executive Niall Woods – a victim himself of being unqualified and clueless (momentarily anyway) after injury forced a premature end to his career – put Hamish Adams in the role of player services adviser. Adams has an impressive CV as a typically nomadic Kiwi player, coach, sports psychologist and career guidance councillor.

In April Rua Tipoki announced he would return to New Zealand due to being unable to recover from a hamstring injury. Tipoki had a lifetime in rugby, but still sought and then utilised this man’s increasingly necessary skills set. “Your work is important and has a huge effect on the lives of the people you deal with,” added Tipoki in correspondence with Woods.

Even Brian O’Driscoll admitted a few months back he sought out a sports psychologist in an effort to reinvigorate his dizzying successful career path as it reached the threshold of old age.

But a cruel reality is the majority of aspiring pros stumble at the first few fences. Most who do make it are on salaries that level out post-30, just when friends and family are moving in the opposite direction.

The feeling that they could be wasting their youth in this, albeit noble and physically brutal, endeavour must be considered.

Take Andy Dunne. As a 15-year-old, not many would have bet against him ascending to a long and fruitful residency in the Ireland number 10 jersey. Okay, Dunne wasn’t a place-kicker of note but the raw ability he displayed for Belvedere College seemed destined for the ultimate rewards. The curtain on Dunne’s meandering 10-year career came down last summer when he was part of a mass cull in Galway. There were weak attempts to veil the exodus but really it was a sure sign of the IRFU cutting costs. Connacht have always been treated as the runt of the litter.

Dunne firmly believed he had three, four years left in the tank but realism intervened when he was accepted at the Royal College of Surgeons as a second-year physiotherapy student while taking up a player-coaching role at Old Belvedere RFC.

Adams cites former Munster and Ireland centre-cum-winger John Kelly as a good example of how to maximise the difficult task of switching into the work force in one’s early 30s.

“When John received his last two-year contract with Munster he enrolled in his professional accountancy exams. Even though John had 10 or 11 years of professionalism under his belt and an engineering degree from UCC he realised, two years out, he would have to face into that abyss, so to speak.

“He put enough money aside so he could study for six to 12 months to finish them off and then he got employed by KPMG here in Cork as a trainee accountant.

“The guy who actually interviewed him for the position was one of his class-mates from school, a senior manager, and John was starting at the bottom rung of the ladder.

“That is the best case example of a guy who was very well prepared for the future. He made a plan and worked towards achieving it.

“All the challenges you will face in this scenario must be considered. You have a different set of friends that you socialise with. Obviously, when you are in a team environment it is a close-knit group and predominantly the guys socialise with each other but when it ends that all changes. It takes, typically, at least 12 months to adjust.”

The difference between Kelly and Dunne is the former saw it coming. Most are not so fortunate. This, Woods freely admits, is the primary challenge facing Irupa (they could also do with two extra bodies to shoulder the 90-plus pros around the provinces that Adams assists on a daily basis). “There were 41 guys off contract in June,” said Woods. “41 guys leaving the system is a huge number. There is one left who is unemployed. Three or four didn’t want any help but we contacted everyone.”

One immediate benefit from 15 years of professionalism are the number of former players becoming coaches. Reggie Corrigan and Anthony Foley, ex-captains of Leinster and Munster, made relatively seamless transitions into their provincial backrooms. In Ulster there is David Humphreys, Jeremy Davidson, Neil Doak and Gary Longwell. But this option only caters for a tiny minority.

The All-Ireland League is the natural coaching route. Justin Fitzpatrick is with Dungannon while Bernard Jackman is overseeing Clontarf as they wind down marathon careers.

Barry Gibney and Emmet Farrell (also a Leinster assistant coach) are on the joint ticket at Blackrock at just 32 years old after both men’s playing days were curtailed by injury.

The pitfalls of following a dream are steep. Last July Adams’ counterparts from around the world gathered at the IRB offices in Dublin to share information.

“We are the latest into this,” said Woods. “Australia have one (adviser) in each Super 14 province as do New Zealand. England have four people so one per three Premiership teams.

“In England there is a helpline for people coping with the pressures of coming off contract who were not ready. There has been a huge take-up which was good on one hand but on the other a worrying aspect is that so many people were availing of the service. It shows the problem is growing.”

Simon Best

FarmerFamily crop farm outside Newry. Enforced retirement due to an irregular heartbeat in September 2007

Club: Ulster

Age: 31

Ireland caps: 23

Position: Prop

“I’m just over a year back working so I’m still getting used to the lie of the land (literally). My father was in charge of the farm until I came back and, yes, like everyone else we are feeling the pinch at the moment.

“It is very labour intensive during the summer, but tapers down in the winter. We employ three other guys full-time.

“It was tough at the start, but you have to move on. I suppose I was fortunate in that I had a degree (from Newcastle University) behind me and some sort of plan to follow when I finished. That cushioned the blow to a certain extent. When you are in there at the heart of it, training and all that, you feel invincible.

“You see guys still playing at 35, 36 and you believe you can go to that age.

“Having that decision made for you is difficult to get your head around but it is a position more people will find themselves in as more become professional directly from school. There will be a natural increase in career-ending injuries.

“Also, there is the difficult challenge for guys who are out of the rat race for ten years or more.”

Victor Costello

PilotWith Ryanair. Retired of his own volition in 2005

Clubs: Leinster, London Irish

Age: 39

I reland caps: 39

Position: No 8

“I’m training as a Ryanair pilot in the East Midlands but will probably get some routes the other side of Christmas. It’s an extremely professional environment as you would expect from the best airline in Europe.

“The transition is hard, especially if you stay around. My contract expired on June 30th, 2005, and by July 1st I was in the US preparing to attend flight school. Reggie Corrigan was with me in Florida, but he returned for pre-season and that passed me by for the first time in more than 10 years. That was the reality.

“In a lot of ways I was institutionalised, being in the sport since I was 16. I wanted to get my teeth into something else. Not to be big-headed, but I was good at shot-putting (’92 Olympics) and rugby. Aviation has been very tough, but I enjoy that challenge.

“In high-level sport there are a huge amount of essential characteristics required – loyalty, discipline, punctuality, ambition. If you can leave professional rugby after 10 years of all this and apply it to your new job you will excel. You have been on your five-yard line, losing to a French side with five minutes to go. What do you do? People don’t face those challenges in every -day work. The key is to find something you love and not something because it is a comfort zone.”

Frankie Sheahan

Sports management Co, O2 ambassador, guest speaker, media work. Retired last season due to a neck injury.

Club: Munster

Age: 33

Ireland caps: 29

Position: Hooker

“I hurt my neck muscle in the last game of the season, I’d torn it earlier, and the medical advice said it was a career-ending injury so I didn’t take up a new contract with Brive in France. I was lucky enough coming from a family business in Cork that I’ve had the opportunity to get involved in auctioneering and other business transactions over the years. I kept my ear to the ground as well and got involved in property.

“I am involved in a sports management company at the moment. As a player I always felt it was a big leap not just contract negotiations, but earning commercial revenue. I intend to keep an eye on their interests outside of rugby so they can keep an eye on their careers; mentoring them a bit as when you have been through the system you can see where guys are going wrong.

“It was 1996 when I got my first cap so I have had few problems moving on. Rugby is so important in my life but when you slip down from first choice in a team it is very hard to cope with it mentally. I had three years of that and it becomes very difficult to motivate yourself. I’ve been looking forward to doing something different for a while. I’m also doing some work with 02, corporate speaking and some media work.”

Andy Dunne

Student(Physiotherapy, RCSI). Released by Connacht last season.

Clubs: Leinster, Bath, Harlequins, Connacht.

Age: 30

Position: Outhalf

“I looked at going abroad again to France, Italy or England but not to have all my eggs in one basket, I’ve always been interested in physiotherapy, so I applied for that. I got offered physio before I heard back from any clubs so I stopped looking around and took the option to attend the RCSI. Using my brain again is hard as I’m compressing four years into three but I feel I have made the right choice.

“The difficult part of the transition was not getting another Connacht contract. I have achieved certain things in my career – I went to England for three years and was involved in various winning teams and got an overall experience of the life as a pro – but I just felt I was giving up on getting capped for Ireland. I felt I could have had another three, four years as a pro. My body is fine. But why keep flogging myself in another country when my future was as a physio?

“Playing for Ireland was something I dreamt about and put a lot of work into. But that bubble burst. Once I accepted that I was grand. I’m assistant-coach to Phil Werahiko in Old Belvedere. I’m trying to utilise the best aspects of the many great coaches I’ve had over the years bearing in mind it’s not a professional set-up and guys are working so I try keep it enjoyable for them.”