In light of All Black's fullback Ben Smith opting to take a sabbatical from rugby, we discuss the benefits of player sabbaticals.
All Blacks sabbaticals
Earlier this week, All Blacks and Highlanders fullback Ben Smith chose to take the option in his joint club and country contract to take a short sabbatical from rugby. Smith joins the likes of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter in a list of players the All Blacks have allowed to take such breaks in the hope of improving the longevity of their career. Two time World Cup winning captain, McCaw, took a 6-month break in 2012, in the hope of letting the Canterbury man maintain his fitness through to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, successfully so. Carter, also formerly of the All Blacks and Canterbury, is currently playing in Paris with french side Racing 92. The 112 cap rugby legend took his 6-month sabbatical in 2014, again with the aim of allowing the fly-half to reach 2015 at his physical peak after suffering a list of injuries. This is a well trodden path for New Zealand and one that has seemingly worked for the All Blacks senior player group in the past.
Why aren’t we all doing it?
If the tactic of allowing players to take these extended breaks is working for the best international side in sporting history, then why aren’t the rest of the rugby world following suit? It is a well known fact that in the northern hemisphere our rugby athletes are playing more rugby (and arguably in a more attritional style) than their southern hemisphere counterparts.
If the likes of Ireland’s captain Rory Best (104 caps), England’s tighthead Dan Cole (74 caps) and Wales second row Alun-Wyn Jones (110 caps) took sabbaticals, it could be the edge required to allow them to attend the 2019 World Cup in Japan at their full potential. All three players took part in an extended season this summer after participating in the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. Cole and Best in particular played a full 80 minutes in the mid-week match against the Hurricanes.
In fact, all of the Lions players would do well to take breaks before or during this coming season. Now, having all 41 players take 6-months away from the game may not be a great idea, but if you space these breaks out and allow 2-months per player at a staggered rate, it could hugely benefit the players, clubs and national sides in the long run.
There may be precedence to allow younger players to take sabbaticals too, there are many players who have struggled to get past careers blighted by injuries. The likes of England’s Manu Tuilagi could have earned far more caps if he had taken a sabbatical when his rotten run of injuries first started.
Why do players need sabbaticals?
Elite sport is one of the most mentally demanding jobs, rising every day to be physically beaten up in training and matches, pushing your body to the limit in the gym, doing the extra technical work outside of the scheduled sessions and keeping a laser-like focus on your work rate. These factors can severely hamper a players’ career if they are not afforded proper rest. For some players one day off a week and the gradual shortening of their end of season holidays are not sufficient at the top level. Taking a few months away from such stress to the body and mind, can do a world of good for a player. These breaks can allow soft tissue micro traumas to fully heal and niggling injuries to be rehabilitated. It also allows players to spend more time with their family and organise personal matters they otherwise wouldn’t have had the time to. This leads to a healthier body, mind and life, allowing the player to return to rugby in the best possible state.
New Zealand lead the way
New Zealand are leading the way in player management at international level and the rest of the world should follow suit. Ireland and Wales centrally contract players and should look to allow sabbaticals in their contracts. Scotland do not centrally contract their players but do own their club sides and should begin to look into the possibility of centrally contracting their top players. England rugby is in a rather different situation, with every Aviva Premiership side privately owned and many English players receiving substantial wage packets. It would be a difficult task for head coach Eddie Jones and the RFU to persuade the clubs to allow their star players such long periods out of the game. With more international games than ever and an increased mandatory rest period for England players, it seems unlikely that the likes of 50 plus capped internationals’ Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes and Dan Cole will be permitted any 6-month breaks any time soon.
Fortunately for England and Eddie Jones, his side is relatively young. Most of the experienced heads have in recent times, inadvertently, taken long periods away from the game. Captain Dylan Hartley served a 6-week ban in December last year and James Haskell spent 7 months on the sidelines with a toe injury after the Australia series in 2016, returning in February 2017. But even then, these two senior players were participating in training and rehab day to day and would not have had the benefit of complete rest that Ben Smith will receive over the next few weeks.
In an ideal world, every national side will centrally contract their players and have the ability to offer sabbaticals where appropriate. In reality, very few countries have this power and we are likely to see players retire sooner than we may have done had they been offered the same luxury of the All Blacks top men. I hope the Lions’ players are making the most of their short holidays after such a long couple of seasons and that we see the players most in need of rest well managed by their clubs.