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Shoulder to Shoulder to the Wheel


Expert Analysis from Simon Keogh, CEO, Rugby Players Ireland. This article has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.

In briefing our members recently, it struck me how precarious our profession is. From trophy-laden campaigns to the battle we now face to ensure we will have another game, never has our sport seemed so fragile.  We are aware of the potential pitfalls that lie ahead as we navigate our way through COVID-19. However, we also have to remind ourselves that through our efforts over the years, we have positioned the professional game of rugby in Ireland in a place of strength. From this we must take great heart as we face into a period of uncertainty. 

Safeguarding Our Players’ Futures

From the onset of this pandemic, we have worked closely with the IRFU to safeguard our players’ futures. To this end, we have agreed to a deferral of payment based on an equitable sliding scale. This agreement had the full backing of our Executive Board, which comprises senior Irish players from across the country, with the most decorated Irish player of all time in Rob Kearney, as our Chairperson.  

The insights of our other Board Directors, including Louise Galvin, Ciara Griffin, Iain Henderson, Eoin McKeon, Peter O’Mahony, Greg O’Shea, Johnny Sexton and Rob have been complemented by the experience of Maura Quinn (IoD Ireland Chief Executive) and Peter McKenna (a founding member of our association) throughout this process. In their efforts to do what is right for our players, they have all demonstrated tremendous leadership not just to their peers but also to the wider game.  

The International Perspective

Sadly, many of our esteemed international colleagues have not fared so well. In Colorado, USA Rugby have been forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy citing ‘insurmountable financial constraints’ in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The following day, Rugby Australia announced that 75% of its staff would be laid off, with those remaining placed on shorter hours and reduced salaries.

Across the water meanwhile, Premiership Rugby clubs have reduced salaries by 25% with many suggesting that such measures don’t go far enough. Even the most commercially marketable rugby team on the planet has felt the blow, with New Zealand Rugby also confirming pay cuts of up to 40% for the next three months. While Irish Rugby has acquired some financial breathing space, the situation will remain under constant review. Our Executive Board will continue to be at the fore of the discussions to come as we all do our best to return rugby in Ireland to a place that we had all begun to take for granted. 

Opportunity: The Impact of Sport

Whilst the experiences of various stakeholders in our game point to the undoubted threat posed to the viability of the sport, it remains unclear as to how the situation will ultimately develop. Consequently, we must proceed in anticipation that we will have our day once again. Like any other business, the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in huge financial challenges across many industries. At times of hardship in the past, the public have looked to their sporting heroes for inspiration and guidance.

One thinks of Jack Charlton and the Republic of Ireland heading to their first major football championship in 1988 as many of our friends departed these shores in search of employment. Ireland’s Grand Slam journey of 2009 was also a source of great joy when we were faced by another economic depression. Both events arguably got the nation to its feet again.

As we delve further still into this crisis, it is increasingly evident how much of an impact is being felt in local communities throughout the island of Ireland. Although we are now precluded from making our presence felt on the field of play, the connected nature of the world today gives us a chance to provide leadership in other guises. Though we remain in the early stages of this pandemic’s presence in Ireland, I am extremely proud of the empathy that our players have shown. Some have been using their considerable influence to amplify the Government’s messaging on preventing the spread of the virus, others have been advocating causes close to their hearts.

Yet while Irish Rugby’s wide fanbase looks to our players, it falls to us to provide our membership with guidance to help them through the next few weeks, or indeed months. Throughout our existence, we have advocated the merits of pursuits beyond the game and the importance of mental wellbeing. Both issues have never been so pronounced than at present and so we must look at this crisis with opportunistic eyes. 

Personal Development 

Underpinning much of what we do at Rugby Players Ireland is our Player Development Programme (PDP). Jointly funded by the IRFU, the PDP provides individualised support to players to help them to maximise opportunities for personal development while they are still playing, and ultimately prepare them for life after the game. 

With five Player Development Managers based across the country, the PDP ensures that every professional rugby player in Ireland has access to the service. This also extends to Academy players, 7s’ players, retired professionals and the women’s programme. Some of the supports provided include help with education, career planning, financial education and mental wellbeing.

The provision of this service is not without its challenges. At an individual level, some players may feel that any distraction from their current career will impact upon performance. Furthermore, its importance is not always recognised within the professional club environment. Ultimately, a club’s success influences their professional reputation and commercial viability and so anything perceived to detract from their core business can be overlooked.

Conversely, recent research has shown that those who had higher levels of engagement in career transition planning actually enhanced their performance. Notably, players were (a) contracted to their team for longer periods, (b) featured more regularly in team selections, and (c) enjoyed longer playing careers overall. Rugby Players Ireland has argued that such findings complement the growing number of European sports policies which state that all athletes should be able to participate in environments that promote long-term personal growth and well-being, in addition to sporting excellence.

Inevitably, COVID-19 will bring the precarious nature of professional sport sharply into focus like never before. Retiring players may find that they have played their last game, others looking for clubs may be lost in the process, while those at the height of their powers may now also see how perilously close they always are to the finish line. What will come to pass remains unknown. However, we know one thing for certain: the career of a professional rugby player is finite. While this may represent an unwelcome break, it serves as a reminder of the delicate nature of our sport and the need to be continuously developing ourselves. Though disconcerting, we all have plenty of time to reflect, take stock and set out a plan for the future. 

Mental Wellbeing

The idle time now on our hands may also stir mental challenges. As the measures to contain COVID-19 continue to be ramped up, many people have been forced to physically isolate. Segregation combined with extensive news coverage on the pandemic and an unknown future has inevitably led to a rise in anxiety levels. 

Yet, despite the proliferation of mental health content in the media, it emerged through research carried out by iReach as part of their Consumer Decisions Omnibus in Q4 of 2018, that 83% of those surveyed in Ireland believe that mental health still has stigma attached to it. Additionally, 51% felt that mental health remains a topic that can’t be talked about openly in Irish society.

Since social distancing was introduced, numerous organisations have also been at hand to impart their advice. Though welcomed for the most part, some cynics would argue that bodies now issuing such information at length are merely capitalising on the situation. At Rugby Players Ireland, we have been around the block for some time. Since 2016, Tackle Your Feelings (TYF), through tools such as the TYF app, has been leveraging the profile of rugby to ignite sustainable change across the island of Ireland in how people think and act around their mental wellbeing. 

Over the course of three impactful years, over 100 professional rugby players in Ireland have offered their support for the campaign which is run in partnership with Zurich and the Z Zurich Foundation. Leading Irish stars have stepped forward to share their stories of how they have overcome challenges in their lives. Their impact has been keenly felt with our assets being viewed over 23 million times on social media. 

TYF continues to grow. Following research which demonstrated that 84% of parents felt that seeing role models like rugby players ‘taking control’ of their mental wellbeing empowers their child to start talking, we released the TYF Schools App in February. Led by teacher and Irish international Eimear Considine, the initiative seeks to instil young people with a positive approach to mental health and wellbeing, reducing stigma around mental health and encouraging the development of their positive wellbeing habits, which they can bring into adulthood.  

Phase Two of the initiative also seeks to get adults talking too. By going into the corporate world, Tackle Your Feelings Workshops have been taking place around Ireland until the recent stalling of events. Yet, we continue to find a way to move. 

In March, as we began to embrace our new reality, we released the latest episode in a series of TYF animations. In the clip, which earned widespread media coverage, Connacht and Irish out-half Jack Carty depicts how he dealt with the pressures of expectation and social media. Social media is a powerful tool, especially when connectivity is being used to combat the new reality of COVID-19. However, it can be equally devastating. We are asking people to be kind to other whilst also being kind to themselves. 

Hero: A Time for Leadership

The term ‘hero’ is often attributed to our members for the courage they display on and off the field. However, we must appreciate that while rugby takes a backseat, there are others who are displaying great courage and resilience at this time. 

We hope we can play our small part in supporting all those on the front-line by making sacrifices and helping to guide the Irish people in the right direction. We also know that when this crisis ends, the game will emerge stronger than ever and our members will be better prepared for whatever the future holds.

They can rest assured that we will be there, every step of the way.