Hurricanes working hard to make players champions off the park too
As rugby league star Greg Inglis checks himself into a mental health facility, Hamish Bidwell investigates how the Hurricanes look after their long-term injured players and prepare all their squad for life after professional rugby.
Better people make better All Blacks.
Sounds nice. In reality it's something people tend to say sarcastically any time a rugby player of note does something daft.
"Better is a very subjective word," says Hurricanes professional development manager Steve Symonds.
Balance is the thing he's trying to help people achieve.
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Symonds is a hockey man. It's a game his whole family's been involved with. He's become a rugby enthusiast, but a love of the game's not essential to his job.
He's trying to build men, not footy players. Blokes who can lead happy, prosperous lives during and after their interlude as professional sportsmen.
"Don't make it all about rugby or all about booze or all about girls or all about education or all about career. What's your balance? A nice relationship, a drink with your mates, education, career exploration, rugby. That's how I'd look at it."
Symonds has been in the job nine years. The difference between now and then is night and day. The support networks and the way players are prepared to access them have changed markedly. But one of the challenges is to equip them for life away from a team environment.
"Everyone says they're living the dream; that's true in a rugby sense. But their mates are doing their apprenticeships or developing their career or finishing their studies.
"If you end up out of this game at 25 and you've only had the [professional] game for two or three years and haven't quite cracked it, it can be difficult."
Many people will know of James Broadhurst's situation. The 29-year-old retired last month due the long-term effects of concussion.
"He's very well set up," said Symonds.
Broadhurst had almost two years to prepare for the next chapter. He and Symonds still work together. Then there's Tim Weston - a former Central Districts cricketer - who handles the transition from playing to retirement for the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association.
The Hurricanes' Alumni are another organisation that's emerged to support players such as Broadhurst.
But Broadhurst isn't the only one. Prop John Schwalger and lock Christian Lloyd are other recent Hurricanes to be forced into retirement by chronic injuries.
Then there's Blade Thomson, who's suffered three shoulder dislocations since July last year. He won't play again for months. But at least he's played this season, if only for a few minutes. Lock Geoff Cridge and first five-eighth TJ Va'a have been injured throughout their two-year tenures as Hurricanes.
Cridge might get back on the park in August and is conspicuous for the lonely laps of Rugby League Park he runs while the playing members of the squad are on their lunch breaks. Dead-ball line, to dead-ball line he jogs, never cutting a corner. There's no-one there to check is he's taking short cuts, but he'd know.
Beyond that Cridge is studying. As is Va'a. Lloyd's father was an officer in the British Army and he's set to follow a similar path. Then there's Schwalger.
"He's already back working in the game [for the Paremata-Plimmerton club] and he's a great dad and a great man. Now he may have been all of those things anyway, but his best mate was murdered the first year I was here and to see the progress of that guy and see the way rugby supported that guy and grew that guy is fantastic," Symonds said.
It's compulsory for the players to do sessions with Symonds and attempt some "meaningful" work or study. The reality is the ones who are playing every week aren't always that receptive. Former captain Conrad Smith was an exception and is still, in Symonds' opinion, the Hurricane with the best life balance.
Injury can be isolating. It can severely impact a player's self-worth and affect his home life. Handled the right way, though, it can also be the making of him.
Take Thomson. He's involved with a Taranaki engineering firm, has bought his first house and is looking at a career in the police. He now has the time to make meaningful progress towards a good life after rugby
But it's not all success stories and pats on the back. The Hurricanes have done three workshops this year on illicit drug use. Respect and responsibility towards women is another regular topic and isn't limited to the players. There are networks to support and educate their partners too.
Some of the biggest gains are being made in the area of mental health. But the death of former Wallabies lock Dan Vickerman and news that Queensland and Kangaroos back Greg Inglis has been admitted to a mental health facility are a reminder of the challenges.
The creation of an environment where no-one is afraid to talk has been one of Smith's legacies as Hurricanes captain and, if there is any positive from Vickerman's situation, said Symonds, it's that it started real conversations about how people are feeling.
It's work that Symonds feels fortunate to be part of.
"I've got programmes that I run in the Pacific Islands, where I take the boys to help us do stuff around domestic violence. It's New Zealand Goverment-funded, it's run by New Zealand Police. That's learning. They give a week of their time. No-one knows about that.
"We've won awards from the police for that. We don't want to stand on a high horse, but I can't believe how many doors get opened because it's rugby. I'm nobody, but I open doors because I've got a Hurricanes brand [on my shirt]. Particularly now we've won [a title]."