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Dublin: 5°C Saturday 16 January 2021

'Don’t identify yourself as an ex-rugby player; you are unemployed right now and it’s fine to say that'

What happens when the music stops? How do rugby players cope with the sporting afterlife? A new book has all the answers.

Horan and O'Callaghan feature in Damian Lawlor's book about the sporting afterlife.
Horan and O'Callaghan feature in Damian Lawlor's book about the sporting afterlife.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

DONNCHA O’CALLAGHAN WAS struggling with his adjustment to freedom. It was a little like that scene near the end of The Shawshank Redemption when Red, the character played by Morgan Freeman, was released from prison but couldn’t find his place on the outside.

Inside Shawshank, Red was the go-to man – ‘I hear you’re someone who can get things’ – but all of a sudden he was an old man incapable of filling bags of groceries or filling time. That was O’Callaghan in 2018, months after retiring. In fact, it’s pretty much the fate every sports person suffers when the curtain falls and the lights go out.

The walls of a dressing room may be gentler than the towering, concrete ones depicted at Shawshank, yet once the rugby player walks out that door one final time, a form of mental anguish travels with them. “These walls are funny,” Red tells Andy Dufresne in the film. “First you hate them. Then you get used to them. Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

It was only when he had retired from the game and was back home in Cork, surrounded by his wife and children that O’Callaghan realised he had his own psychological chains to break. “Lack of purpose after retiring? I was actually fine with that,” O’Callaghan says in a newly published book. “It was the routine I was missing.”

He gives an example. Shortly after he had returned from Worcester – where he’d finished off his career in 2018 – Jenny, O’Callaghan’s wife, told him that her mother had invited them down for dinner. The conversation took place on a Monday; the dinner date set for Thursday.

O’Callaghan picks up this story. “I showed Jenny my weekly plan, showed her where I had food laid out, the calorie intake already counted, and asked did she mind if I brought my own food down to her mam’s house?

“Jenny looked at me in bewilderment and sighed, ‘Will you just come for some fecking dinner?’”

O’Callaghan’s post rugby life is brilliantly chronicled by Damian Lawlor in his new book, When The World Stops Watching, published by Black and White. Across 20 chapters, the author speaks to the superstars and the nearly men, the heroines who made it; the mind-gurus who helped them cope when it was over.

It is meant as a celebration, commiseration, commemoration. In their careers, they shared our hopes as well as carried them.

Now – their playing days over – they are left to carry their burdens alone.

donncha-ocallaghan-with-connacht-fans-after-the-game O'Callaghan finished off his career with Worcester. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

They don’t all find it easy. There’s Marcus Horan, who now works as a player development manager with Rugby Players Ireland, his job spec centring on helping rugby players with this sporting afterlife.

“I know of at least two fellas, recently retired,” Horan tells Lawlor in one of the chapters, “who have dropped out of social scenes simply because they didn’t have an answer when people ask, ‘What are you doing now?’

“In their own minds these guys want to be able to say, ‘I am Marcus Horan and I am a player development manager’ or ‘I am X and I’m an accountant’ or whatever. But not everyone earns the status they want straight away.”

It seems something of a curiosity that the better the player, the likelier it is that they will experience a tougher transition to the ‘real world’.

Some miss the game terribly.

“We had a tight bunch at Munster,” Horan says, “but once you are gone, you’re really gone.”

One player – not that long retired – had soldiered tirelessly for Connacht for years, a beacon of light in the dark years. When age caught up on him, he bade his farewells after a game on a Saturday and woke up on the Sunday to see his name had already been removed from the team’s WhatsApp group. Curiously, for this particular player, this was the part about retiring he found the hardest.

For others, it was the loss of camaraderie, the knowledge that the unbreakable bond that forged great days and big wins had disappeared. Once they relied on one another; now they’re just an image, pictured together inside a wooden frame.

“Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis or something but some of us met over Christmas of last year and it was so bloody hard to arrange,” Trevor Hogan the former Munster and Leinster second-row says in the book.

“It shouldn’t have been like that. My wife seems to meet up her pals a lot easier than I do. Even on that particular  night some lads couldn’t make it in. Maybe it was only then that I realised the group is never going to be as tight as it used to be.”

As it happens, the rugby players Lawlor spoke to have all bridged the gap to a new identity with a fair degree of success, Hogan working in Leinster’s academy; O’Callaghan and Tommy Bowe in media; Horan in his developmental work with Munster’s current squad.

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But the grand slam winning prop delivers a warning. “Some lads leave this sport and they feel useless,” he tells Lawlor.

It’s more than just a few. A 2018 survey by Rugby Players Ireland, where 160 former professionals responded, discovered that 54 per cent of retirees felt within control of their new careers and lives within two years of hanging up the boots. Some 23 per cent said it took them up to five years to get to that point.

It’s an issue that is applicable in other sports as well. In 2018, a separate survey conducted by the English soccer body, the Professional Players Association (PFA) revealed that over half those former professionals who responded had concerns about their mental or emotional well-being after retiring.

“Most of these lads are not prepared and, once they go, they have little or no support from the game to which they gave their lives,” Niall Quinn tells Lawlor.

Horan is aware of those pitfalls. Hogan, too, had an IRUPA poster plastered across his wall at home, warning him of what was to come after he hung up the boots. Denial. Depression. Anger. Space. The Future.

trevor-hogan Trevor Hogan in his work with the Leinster academy. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

If it all sounds scary, there is hope. The current generation of players, Horan says, ‘find it easier to talk freely (about emotional issues) than we did’.

O’Callaghan ended up talking to Roy Keane of all people, as part of a television documentary he was putting together. “I told him that when it came to my exit medical at Worcester, I had been asked to list my occupation and that I had to pause as I didn’t know what to write down,” O’Callaghan says in the book. “I didn’t even get to finish the sentence.”

Keane did so, on his behalf.

“Unemployed,” Keane said.

“There’s nothing wrong with you writing down that you are unemployed on that form. Don’t identify yourself as an ex-rugby player; you are unemployed right now and it’s fine to say that. To say you are an ex-rugby player is not. That’s done man,” Keane told him. “Slam the door on that and get going again.”

O’Callaghan has. He’s the voice of RTE’s Game On; has worked with Bowe on eir Sport; wrote a superb column for The Times; is a brand ambassador for Centra.

It’s a common enough theme, the ex-player finding some form of work in the media. You only have to look at Ireland’s grand slam winning team in 2009 to realise that, 14 of them jumping over the fence to offer an opinion on the game they recently played.

They do other stuff, too. Luke Fitzgerald is a treasury dealer with AIB; Ronan O’Gara is head coach of La Rochelle in France’s Top 14; Jamie Heaslip has invested in pubs, restaurants and a sporting start-up Kitman Labs, while David Wallace is chief commercial officer with i3PT in the construction sector.

From their 2018 survey, Rugby Players Ireland discovered that 94 per cent of past players are in full-time employment. Meanwhile of the current generation of players, 63.5 per cent of Academy players in the four provinces are continuing their studies, with previous research by RPI indicating that 80 per cent of players aged 30 or over have a third level qualification.

Better again, 77 per cent of current players are actively seeking to develop a career outside of rugby. The most striking figure, however, is that 90 per cent of players now believe team management supports them developing a career outside of rugby. Back in 2014, when a previous survey was taken, that figure stood at 55 per cent.

It all sounds perfect. But of course it’s not. “Great players,” the American sportswriter Mark Kram, wrote, “die twice, once as players, once as men.” The God given gifts that allowed them reach a level of privilege later become a curse when the legs slow and the music stops.

Those are the terms and conditions of becoming an athlete.

No one can complain.

If they do, it is because they didn’t bother to read the small print.

 When The World Stops Watching, published by Black and White, is available in bookshops or online from Irish book stores.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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