'Prepare for life after rugby' - Saunders

17:00, Jun 01 2010
Matt Saunders
THINKING BACK: Southland rugby player Matt Saunders is warning young professional players to think of life after rugby.

There is no doubting the sport of rugby can these days line young New Zealanders' pockets in a very healthy manner. However, Logan Savory talks to a former Super 14 player who is warning those youngsters not to rely entirely on the world of professional rugby.

In 2005, life probably couldn't have got much better for Matt Saunders.

The then-22-year-old was in his second season as a Super rugby player and that year went on to start on the wing in nine of the Highlanders' 11 round-robin fixtures.

Rugby players' incomes in New Zealand aren't as accessible to the public as that of, say, English football players, but it isn't hard to work out that in 2005 Saunders was hauling in a lot more than your average Kiwi 22-year-old.

Minimum Super 14 contracts hover around $65,000 a year and on top of that the players can add their provincial contracts to their annual salary.

For Saunders, everything was rosy as he continued to march through the New Zealand rugby ranks after making his first-class debut with North Otago at just 17.


Saunders had started a bachelor of arts degree after school but admits when he was turning out for the Highlanders that degree become very much an after-thought.

Saunders was all about rugby, and who could blame him, under the bright lights of professional rugby and the dollar signs being dangled in front of him.

Five years on from his best year as a Super rugby player, Saunders is now warning current professional rugby newbies to not fall into the same trap.

"Prepare for life after rugby" is the advice Saunders is offering them.

On the rugby front, Saunders suffered a host of setbacks, including injury and a lack of form, and at the end of 2007 that resulted in him being unwanted by the Highlanders and the Otago Rugby Union.

The promising rugby prospect was on the outer.

Saunders' home province of Southland offered him a lifeline and he is now preparing for his third campaign with the Stags as he continues to try to make it back to the Super competition level.

At the same time, though, he is also trying to pave a career outside the game knowing too well how fickle playing sport for a living can be.

"Earlier on I was thinking about (life outside of rugby) but then I was playing pretty well so I gave up my degree. I thought I'd play (Super 14) for 10 years and then head overseas for a couple and it would be sweet," he said yesterday, reflecting on his plans as a 22-year-old.

"But you get to now, you're on a provincial contract only and starting to struggle and you think `jeez, I better start to get into something'."

Saunders is now completing his arts degree through Massey University and also spending time with Westpac in Invercargill on work experience.

Westpac has developed a relationship with the New Zealand Rugby Players Association, helping the players with advice on their financial needs.

The Invercargill branch of Westpac has increased its involvement in various other ways, including getting Saunders involved in its workplace.

The 27-year-old is getting a taste of what it is like working in the rural banking sector as he looks at a possible future career path.

His step back into study and looking at career options was something he was enjoying, and Saunders couldn't help but now reflect on what could have been.

"If I had my time again I'd have three degrees by now. It's just laziness; you think you don't have the time but you have all the time in the world to do it," he said.

The Stags back believed there was also an added bonus to having a goal outside of rugby to pursue.

"It doesn't always go to plan, is the main message but I think the other message (to young rugby players) is that I was probably playing my better rugby when I was studying as well. Looking back at it, I don't know why I stopped."

The New Zealand Rugby Union recognises the need to keep its contracted players active outside rugby and encourage them to pursue other interests.

On the one hand, it is commonly thought that professional sportspeople perform better when they have goals outside sport, while it is also a matter of responsibility for the union to encourage their players to look beyond rugby.

The NZRU has professional development officers in all 14 national provincial championships unions and the five Super 14 franchises.

Those officers work with the players to find them a possible career path oustide of rugby.

Saunders admits those professional development officers could be viewed by a youngster as an annoying person forcing something upon you.

In reality, Saunders admits they are a golden tool to help in developing a career path and praised the work that Rugby Southland's professional development officer had done for him.


2000: At just 17, Matt Saunders made his first-class debut when the St Kevin's college student lined up at centre in North Otago's Ranfurly Shield game against Waikato. On that day he marked All Black Keith Lowen.

2001: Saunders spent his second season with North Otago, where the teenager helped the Old Golds to yet another NPC third division final. North Otago lost that final 20-16 to South Canterbury.

2002: He joined the Otago Rugby Union, where he spent the season playing representative rugby for the Otago Colts.

2003: He stepped into New Zealand's provincial rugby big time for the first time, making his debut for Otago in the premier provincial competition.

2004: Earlier in the year, he cracked the Highlanders setup, where he started in the final three games of the 2004 competition. However, injury ruled him out of the entire national provincial championship season that year.

2005: He became a regular starter for the Highlanders, starting in nine of their 11 games that year on the wing. He also started 12 games on the wing for Otago that year.

2006: He damaged his shoulder during a preseason game and took no part in the Super 14 that year as a result. He returned to rugby for the last couple of Otago games during the provincial season.

2007: He played in every one of the Highlanders' 13 Super 14 games that year, with a majority of those starts at centre. He also played in all of Otago's 13 games but did struggle for form late in the year.

2008: He didn't regain a Super 14 contract with the Highlanders and was cut by the Otago Rugby Union. However, he found a lifeline in Southland, joining his home province for the Stags' campaign that year.

2009: The boy from Gore turned out for the Stags again in his second season, helping Southland to its historic Ranfurly Shield win over Canterbury.

The Southland Times