'We're just getting by but I think it's almost at breaking point for a lot of players'

Ex-All Blacks Conrad Smith is working closely with International Rugby Players.

HE’S ONE OF the most intelligent rugby players of all time and now Conrad Smith’s smarts are being put to good use off the pitch too.

The former All Blacks centre and current Pau midfielder will retire from playing at the end of the current season but he will have few worries about life when he hangs up his boots.

New Zealand's Conrad Smith Smith was a class act over 94 caps for the All Blacks. Source: BIlly Stickland/INPHO

Already a qualified lawyer who has worked intermittently in that industry even during his playing career, the 36-year-old fancies a crack at coaching in the coming years and has also already been working with International Rugby Players [IRP].

Smith is an ideal representative for players, with his affable nature and strong communication skills helping him to deal with World Rugby, unions and clubs in the professional game.

The former Hurricane was heavily involved in the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association during his years as an All Black, meaning he was always likely to get a call from IRP when he made the move to Europe in 2015.

Smith and his family will remain in France even after his retirement from playing this summer, meaning he will become even more involved with IRP.

My experience came from New Zealand and because I had come out of law school I was straight away tapped on the shoulder to join the players’ association,” said Smith this week in Dublin.

“I pretty quickly realised that when it’s done effectively it gives the player a voice and helps with the administration of the game.

“It was growing quickly in New Zealand at that time and now that’s happened globally. When a sport develops that way, there are all sorts of commercial things and the players’ voice can get lost and the result isn’t the best for them.”

In terms of the message that professional rugby players are attempting to get across at the moment, the issue of workload is the central one.

While the IRFU and New Zealand Rugby are the envy of many other nations thanks to their central contracting system and ability to manage players’ game time across club and country games, in England and France there are big concerns.

Conrad Smith Smith was in Dublin this week with IRP. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Smith understands that this is a complex issue but he stresses the importance of rugby doing something about the number of games players are taking part in each season before it is too late.

“The way New Zealand Rugby dealt with it, the strong advice from the players’ association was that you needed to work on it on an individual basis.

“It’s really hard to have blanket rules and that’s something international rugby is experiencing. You can’t just say, ‘Here’s the set number of games’.

“New Zealand understood that to get the best out of players you’ve got to talk to them and understand that they can’t play every week of the year.

“That requires a lot of co-operation and work and that can be hard internationally, but we need to address it. World Rugby understand it as well and, as it is, we’re just getting by but I think it’s almost at breaking point for a lot of players. It’s something we’ve got to avoid.”

Naturally enough, current players cannot speak out about any perceived mistreatment by their specific employers, but the internal feedback through IRP is that many of them are being over-trained too.

“It’s the training loads as well,” said Smith. “We do more running in a training environment than we do on match day itself.

“Playing the games is fine but it’s the week of training, which you need to do, but when you back them up over the course of a year… the obvious thing is that it transfers into injuries but also, from personal experience, it affects your enjoyment of the game.

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“When you’re playing a season for that long, you want to be at peak performance all the time but it’s impossible to do that over a long period of time.

Conrad Smith Smith won two World Cups with New Zealand. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

“When there are big games, when there are World Cups, when there are Test matches, you want to be at the top of your game – not coming off four or five months of back-to-back footy.”

In Smith’s experience, building rest periods into players’ seasons on an individual basis is one of the best tools for managing their physical and mental wellbeing.

“For certain players in New Zealand, they will plan out two or three weeks where the players won’t play and coupled with that, they won’t train.

“If you can target and plan that from the start of the season for guys who know they’re going to have a big workload, that makes a big difference.

“You can go away, not put your boots on, not be running around a field. You’re still working – and we’re not trying to get out of work! – but that week, honestly, the lift that it gives you is massive.

“Although we’d love it to be addressed by World Rugby and International Rugby Players working with them, coaches get it as well. There are guys who get rested or take time off.

“I just had the last week off and that’s how you get the most out of players. It’s beneficial to find those times within the season for everyone.”

Smith’s skills will also be used by IRP in the field of agent accreditation, with the ex-All Black central to a new scheme to put a global agent registration system in place.

The exploitation of youngsters from the Pacific Islands is central to this work, as they are sometimes plunged into very unfamiliar environments after being made promises that never transpire.

Conrad Smith and Brian O'Driscoll Smith in action against Brian O'Driscoll. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Rugby is providing these young Pacific Island players with great opportunities in places like France and the UK,” says Smith, “but at the same time we have to look after them, and the agents are often the ones in between sorting out the contracts.

“We need to make sure they’re looking after the players and making sure that if things go wrong, they’re not just dropped off and not looked after, which is unfortunately what has been happening over the last few years.

“It’s just about making sure that agents are held accountable to do a good job and look after the players’ interests.”

While further details of IRP’s scheme in the field of agent accreditation will follow later this year, having Smith involved in all aspects of their work looks like being a masterstroke.

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