THE SECRET PLAYER
Without Wishing to come over all ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ about it, I’m from a resolutely working-class background (“Gumshields? Looxury!” etc). My father did a ridiculously hard and dangerous outdoor job for 40 years, and as he was self-employed the thought of unions or pensions never ever crossed his mind.
So when I entered ‘the workplace’ as a young pro, the concept of having rights as an employee, and that those who paid me have obligations to take care of me, were entirely foreign. Perhaps I’m too eager to please, but I was willing to do whatever I was told and whatever my coaches and team-mates needed. Injuries, concussions and exhaustion were just minor impediments to getting the job done.
Most guys spend the majority of their career without giving a second thought to whether there might be a different, fairer way of doing things. To begin with, you are astounded that someone is willing to pay you for these shenanigans; rocking the boat couldn’t be further from your mind.
Then, very quickly, you move into survival mode. With contracts generally two years long, you are only ever a couple of months’ bad form or a decent injury away from finding yourself on the dung heap. ‘Find a contract, keep a contract’ is our subconscious mantra.
Generally, then, it is only in the autumn of a career that players develop the confidence, inclination and gumption to speak up on behalf of the common foot soldier. It took me a long time to cotton on that as you approached the age of 30 and beyond, when the pressure of child-rearing and finding a job after sport begin to weigh heavily, that this stuff was actually serious.
In my early twenties, I remember our national union’s CEO coming to tell the squad that our paltry match fees were being held at their current level for two years. I said it all seemed fair enough as we had been awful that season anyway. Plus, to someone whose previous job had been a paper round, the peanuts we were being paid was still a fortune.
The older guys, of course, were ready to fight like dogs for extra cash, and their disgust and incredulity at my stupidity was palpable. I was effectively shunned by the little cabal of senior players. But on the positive side, it started to dawn on me that we were not just pieces of meat and, if you are good enough and smart enough, players can have power to influence their own destinies.
There is an irony in this, however, as the guys who have the most clout – ie, those at the very top – may be the ones who gain most from the system as it exists. In Ireland, top internationals are very well looked after by their union and pretty well paid, so seem to have little to complain about. The situations in Scotland and Wales are largely similar.
The guys who do have a genuine case for being overworked are the English. Just seeing a photo of Chris Robshaw makes me feel tired. Even if he’s in a tuxedo. But when was the last time you heard a leaked insider complaint about one of Eddie Jones’s notoriously brutal camps? It’s amazing the battering a body will accept when £22,000 a game is the ultimate reward.
And if you’re a home international playing in France? Zero complaints from them; zero sympathy from the home union. We all know there are roughly 500,000 reasons to join the grind of the Top 14, and “wanting a new experience” isn’t actually one of them. So who does that leave to champion the cause of the overworked, misused journeyman? Old duffers; guys who used to play a bit and now periodically recount how they can barely swing themselves out of bed in the morning.
A bit of lip service will be paid by clubs to resting players, prolonging careers and ensuring guys aren’t left physical and mental wrecks by rugby.
But the unavoidable truth is it’s a ridiculously hard and dangerous outdoor job. Yet unlike the one my dad did, a pretty well-paid one.
Packed scheduleEddie Jones at an England camp in August