Sky Sports talks to RPA boss Damian Hopley about Restart organisation to help players forced to retire

Damian Hopley talks to Sky Sports about the Restart campaign helping ex-rugby players.

By Paul Higham Twitter: @SkySportsPaulH.   Last Updated: 20/02/13 9:22pm

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Rugby Players Association CEO Damian Hopley knows only too well the pain a career which ends prematurely can cause, which is why he is so keen on their new campaign to help players deal with the end of their days on the field.

The RPA are fully behind the new charitable organisation Restart, which is aimed at helping players cope with the transition from player to ex-player, be it from injury or retirement or even just losing their playing contract.

"It does sound melodramatic but I stand by for me it was like a part of me died and it was almost like I had a complete stop and start again, I was no longer a rugby player and I lost a lot of self-esteem about that and it was a hell of a difficult time."
Damian Hopley

The return of the RBS Six Nations has seen some huge-hitting games being played, and with rugby stars now fitter, faster and stronger than ever, the risk of injury is a big worry.

Rugby players these days are full-time professionals as well, gone are the days when solicitors and accountants swapped their suits for shorts and represented their country at top-level rugby - they are constantly in the gym and their entire lives are emerged in the game.

That's why it makes it so hard for players who see their careers cut short, either through injury or just losing their contract, to adjust to life after rugby and that is exactly the reason Hopley and co have launched Restart.

"We've been running the charity now for over ten years and whilst we've got some good support this is the first chance we've got to invest the resource and direction to what we're trying to achieve," Hopley told Sky Sports.

Restart campaign

"It was felt we had to come up with a more current look and feel and something that would resonate with the fans and players and felt that Restart summed up what our players went through when they retire, stopped or had to give up playing.

Lee Mears has been forced to retire

"Not only in terms of their careers but also self-esteem issues when they have to give up something they love. We really think it's an important part in terms of the game's duty of care to its professional players to make sure when their days playing are finished there is the support in place to help them retrain and re-educate themselves to help them into their second and much longer career.

"Rugby's always had a fantastic track record of looking after its own and rallying around. We know given the increased intensity and physicality of rugby we do have longer term issues in terms of long-term wellbeing and it's important Restart is there to provide as much protection as possible."

Former England international Hopley says he can see the increase in intensity leading to more players having to call it a day early - with England prop Lee Mears having to quit with a heart problem providing a timely reminder of how fragile a rugby career can be.

"Last year we had 24 players retire prematurely due to injury which is a significant lift from the year before, so we know we need to prepare the players for life after the game," Hopley added. "Sometimes you only have to look at the players and the impact to wonder how they can keep getting up time after time.

"There's no doubt that increased strength and intensity of collisions keeps us enthralled by rugby but something has got to give and inevitably it's the players and their long term welfare.

"I don't think the game has become more dangerous with the way it's refereed and the significant enhancement in sports medicine but you only have to look and see what a physical game it is. Squad size plays an important part in helping players get through 40 weeks of a season in such an intense sport."

Mental aspects

Although physical matters can force a retirement, it is the more mental and psychological impact that Restart is aimed at, and having had to retire early himself Hopley knows just what a huge blow it can be for a player to suddenly find himself an ex-player.

"A lot of people focus on the physical side but for me it's the mental side of it with the loss of self-esteem and identity after you've done something you love for 15 years from school to, fortunately in my case, the national team.

"A great human trait is you want to belong and I think that's the hardest thing - suddenly you're no longer able to lace up your boots you've got to hand back your tracksuit and that's your career done.

"It does sound melodramatic but I stand by the fact that for me it was like a part of me died and it was almost like I had a complete stop and start again, I was no longer a rugby player and I lost a lot of self-esteem about that and it was a hell of a difficult time.

"We've now identified the psychological aspect and we feel there's a huge amount of work need to be done in this area to provide the players a place to talk about things confidentially that they wouldn't be prepared to talk about in front of an employer.

"And we think restart is going to make a big impact for players now just knowing they have a system there that can help them move on with their lives."

RESTART is the official charity of The RPA, providing support for professional rugby players during and after their careers. For more information and details about how you can support the charity visit: www.restartrugby.org.uk

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