2 Mar 2021

RL Cares supporting retired players

In the opening episode of series three of Out Of Your League, Jon Wilkin and Mark Flanagan talk extensively about their retirement from rugby league. 

With this in mind, superleague.co.uk caught up with ex-England prop & Rugby League Cares Transition Manager, Francis Stephenson, about the excellent work the charity is doing to prepare players for life after rugby.

Firstly, Francis, tell us a little bit about the charity and the work that you do?

RL Cares is the main charity of rugby league. We have four pillars. The pillar I'm involved with is the player welfare programme for current and former players. There is a community programme where we work with the foundations at each club to deliver mental health and physical fitness programmes. There’s also the history of the sport pillar, which looks after the heritage of rugby league and, finally, the benevolent fund. 

So, is your role to help players prepare for that transition?

Yes, my role is around the transition period towards the end of a player’s career and to provide that extra layer of support and make sure their plans are on track and they are making use of all the benefits and support from RL Cares. And when they do retire, I am a lot more visible, certainly in that first year. I want to make sure they have every opportunity to flourish in whatever they decide to do next. 

A big part of the player welfare programme is education and career planning. Effectively, once players get into the first team, they should also have access and opportunities to start thinking about what they’d like to do after rugby. 

Each club has a player welfare manager and access to a careers coach so they can work on more thought-out plans and pathways. It’s a dual-track approach. They can concentrate on playing rugby, but they’ve also got support for finding something fulfilling after they’ve stopped.  

What kind of access to educational courses and jobs do players have?

It’s open for the players to decide; we have a variety of occupations that our former players enjoy. 

Some current players will be undertaking university courses as part of their career action plans and education requirements for their future careers. Any eligible player who is considering undertaking education specifically for their future career can get access to an educational fund. 

As part of their development, they are encouraged to explore opportunities away from rugby that may interest them in the future. We want to make sure they have tried a few different things before they step off the conveyor belt that is rugby league. 

Are players more prepared nowadays than they were for life after rugby?

The player welfare programme spearheaded by Emma Rosewarne has helped players become more prepared. They are thinking about what happens next. We can always get better; we can always improve and evolve the programme for the benefit of the playing community. 

Certainly, from when I retired in 2006, it’s a totally different animal now in terms of preparation for future careers. Players are a lot wiser and smarter through the work RL Cares has done to raise the expectation of what they need to be doing. Some players are still not fully aware but there’s no better time to start than today. 

How do you manage players wanting to fully commit to rugby but also making sure they are focusing on what comes next?

There are a lot of guys with that mindset. I certainly had it while I was a player. I just wanted to dedicate all my physical and mental resources to being the best player I could. There’s no reason why they can’t do that and also have an eye on the future with this educational and career pathway on the side. 

There was some research done in the NRL and it demonstrated that those players who were actively engaged in their career planning had longer contracts, earned more money, and spent more time on the field. So, if players do think it could take away from them being a great player, the opposite is true based on the research. 

What’s the biggest challenge for players post-retirement?

Well, the easy one is that they miss the changing room. They miss the camaraderie and the friendships developed with teammates. You do form a special bond when you work with somebody so closely as you do in professional sport. 

You share some significant moments in each other’s lives - whether that's the highs or the lows. Some of the stuff in the transition programme is designed to address that. It gives them the opportunity to rekindle and reconnect with former colleagues. 

How do you adapt to working with players who have retired for different reasons and have different plans once they’ve retired? 

It’s not our job to lead a player down a certain pathway. We want to advise and provide opportunities and guidance. Ultimately, the players know what’s right for them, and they are more than capable of making their own choices and decisions. 

Every player is different. They all leave the sport on different terms. Some in a positive fashion, such as Sean O’Loughlin and James Graham. They finished on a high in the Grand Final last year. It’s a great send-off for those guys. 

Some players who get injured during a game never expect that retirement. To some extent, part of their career has been stolen from them. And that’s a different challenge and it takes some time to come to terms with. 

Do you have to approach a player differently if their career has ended suddenly? 

Everyone gets the same level of care regardless and is offered the same benefits and support. We are mindful of the difficulties for players who have an unplanned retirement. It does have its own challenges. But rugby league players are pragmatic and resolute individuals who get on with their rehab and go about their business and focus on being as good as they can be in the next chapter. 

Discipline, hard work, dedication – these are all the words that we’d associate with Super League players. They can apply to their next career and be just as successful, if not more successful.

Find out more about Rugby League Cares here: https://www.rugbyleaguecares.org

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