The retirement within the last 12 months of Gloucester lock Alex Brown and full back Olly Morgan because of injuries shows how physically demanding the professional game is. With it has come an ever increasing list of players unable to complete what you might call a natural career path simply because their bodies, despite the advances made in medicine and conditioning, are unable to cope.
Other recent notable retirees include Joe Ansbro, Dan Hipkiss, Lee Mears and Shaun Perry. The vision of Damian Hopley in forming the Rugby Players Association in 1998 when he himself was forced to retire early now looks of ever increasing value. Not surprisingly perhaps, about 98% of all Premiership players are members, but do regular Premiership fans have any idea what the RPA does ?
Hopley as CEO runs a small team and is supported by former Bath prop David Barnes as Rugby Director. There are then seven regional player development managers, with the Gloucester squad under the guiding eye of Josh Frape, who played a handful of first team games at Kingsholm more than a decade ago.
Barnes told me “We want to look after the players and protect the image and reputation of the game. I would like to think the players know the role we play every day of the year, but it does come home a bit more when something happens to one of their team mates. Players are fortunate to receive good salaries but injury can happen at any point.”
To that end, the RPA carry out an extensive annual injury audit. It takes time to work its way through
all the necessary channels but it is comprehensive and Barnes says there is always a discussion about
how the RPA formulates what it does in the light of the results.
Concussion is in the spotlight at the moment. Scrum caps may reduce cuts and cauliflower ears but they don’t stop it, which means the protocols surrounding how concussion is dealt with at the time, and when the player is allowed to play again, remain under constant review.
Surprisingly perhaps, Restart – the official charity of the RPA – has had to deal with increasing numbers
of players who have experienced difficult times post their rugby careers.
One of the highest profile cases has been Matt Hampson, who was injured while training with England at age group level, but it is also there to support players who are injured playing for their club, and who are then released. The charity helps not only with medical care and assistance, but also with mental health too. Barnes says it means getting the message out early about life after rugby.
“The biggest area of progress since my involvement has been in getting players to develop as individuals away from the game. They can join an academy at 16, but they have an annual turnover of about 20%.”
“From the age of 18, we encourage players to continue their education or get relevant work experience so that if they do have a serious injury, they have something to fall back on. Most players think they will play until they are 35, but over the past three seasons the numbers retiring because of injury has been rising. Last season it was 22, which is nearly two per club.”
More RPA research has shown that more than 80% of players think having an outside interest helps
them perform better on the field because their life balance is better. The chairman of the Players Board, Gloucester veteran Will James, is just one example, having developed a property business. It is a fact of life that in most cases, a player will earn less once they retire from rugby than they do while playing, so the message about acquiring other skills is hammered home at every opportunity.
“I think fans are aware we’re here but less so about what our role is” said Barnes. “We, the RPA, are here to help the ‘everyday’ player. The charity is there for the injured and ill. We have different mandates. Restart is fortunate that as the numbers of players needing their help is rising, the numbers of people coming forward to help raise funds is doing so too.”
The standard contract for a Premiership player factors in a possible 26 weeks of time in any year where a player is unavailable because of injury. To me, it’s a staggeringly high %, but one brought into sharp focus again after James Simpson-Daniel and Ryan Mills were both carried off in Gloucester’s LV Cup win over Newcastle on Saturday.
Both players have needed surgery, Simpson-Daniel to an injured ankle and Mills to a broken foot. Both will be out for some time, and will miss a high intensity phase of the season. Their absence shows how poignant the work of the RPA is, whether you are an established Premiership regular or a player starting out in the professional game.
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