Rugby Sabbatical, the New Rest and Recuperation Policy

Super Rugby Rd 4 - Brumbies v Waratahs
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In the Army, rest and recuperation was a wartime policy to assist service men and women who had faced injury or at worst, suffered from the mortality of their fellow officers and personnel. It was to take them away from the environment–and in a sporting parlance, today, the Rugby Sabbatical is the closest policy.

It is a leave of absence, although it would have to be at a time that suits both parties. Not absent at the expense of the success of the team though. It is concentrated on removing the sports person from that tough environment [at least in a professional sense]. Aimed to prolong their involvement.

Time off is regarded as a fundamental element of professional life. Annual leave is granted for staffs who work over a sustained period of time. An accrued proportion of time is awarded as paid leave. That is a fair exchange, so in sporting terms, after putting in a term with your team/union then you might expect leave.

More so today, players associations today have bargained for conditions like this. And have had success for ‘minimum rest periods’ after competitions end.

That time maybe sometimes as little as seven days, but let’s take the All Blacks for example: on returning from the November end of year tour matches, they will be given a minimum of 12 weeks R&R {Section 104.3 of the Collective Employment Agreement}. It means they are not back for the Super Rugby pre-season; like their team mates will be.

But this International component is integral to sustaining a career. One where the ‘rugby environment’ involves tackling men who weigh up to 120 kilograms. A somewhat dangerous workplace you might think, so some rest is required–even when over the International season, your health may have already been given first-class care.

The R&R clause just means representative players come back refreshed, fully healed from injury, ready to continue their careers.

David Pocock of the Wallabies receives attention for an injured eye socket during the International Test match. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Rugby Sabbatical, the New Rest and Recuperation Policy that Works

For some, intensive seasons of domestic and International rugby have taken a toll. Australian former captain David Pocock (above) is one. After what he’s reported to have called “11 years non-stop” rugby, he executed a sabbatical. While it has removed him from the Australian game for 12 months, the proof is that he should return energized and with a fresh enthusiasm.

How Rugby Australia ensure that he returns with a fitness level; where he might return immediately to Super Rugby, was determined by Bill Pulver and Michael Cheika. Pulver was happy to afford his star flanker this allowance – while still on a reported $750,000 retainer.

“If you want to surround yourself with the best possible people then you need to be as flexible as possible.”

The arrangement [organized in conjunction with the ARU, Rugby Union Players Association and the ACT Brumbies franchise] affords the back-rower time off. Time to freshen up mentally and physically. He has travelled and has played in the Japan Top League rugby.

This policy was similarly used in the last few weeks by Israel Folau. He was provided the same policy of a rugby sabbatical. His concern was that he had never had a significant break (crossing codes, from League to Aussie Rules, into Union) and while the sabbatical is not just time to simply ‘sit on the beach and drink beer’ it is designed to relax from the week-to-week pressures of professional sport. Folau was withdrawn from the Autumn tour. But the policy would assist him over the long term.

Folau and Pocock’s motivations are different. For one it maybe physical, or mental. Wanting to contribute to society or to bond with family. And for some players, that is a key benefit.

Ben Smith Benefits from R&R and Time Bonding with Newborn Baby

Paid parental leave is a hot news item in New Zealand currently. The newly elected Labour government has just introduced a phased-in period of more paid parental leave of up to 26 weeks. That is in line with International standards, and for All Black star Ben Smith, his sabbatical could almost be seen as a form of ‘paternity leave’.

The fullback is currently utilizing his sabbatical clause. Coincidentally, he and his wife just celebrated the birth of their second child. The timing; in regards to both family and the players personal health, couldn’t have been better timed. With a pregnant wife, Smith may have had to miss a short amount of time during the International season, to attend the birth anyway. Leave that the NZR would happily have afforded–going by recent history–but only for a short window.

But Smith’s was a season brought short by injury sadly. Concussion and an inner ear infection curtailed Smith’s role with the All Blacks in July. So as the prognosis would have been for rest anyway, taking a six month sabbatical was probably the best medicine.

The player finished his time with the national side, and has been quietly doing the things that any proud father and husband would – putting family first.

NZ Rugby Focus on Player Health and Welfare

Maintaining the focus on concussion and the effects of sustained damage, Smith and other All Blacks are appropriately given appropriate rest periods to recover. The subject is now paramount to both prolonging careers, but also to maintain player awareness and new standards.

The ACC RugbySmart program, the Blue Card for suspected concussion, along with increased awareness, all play a part in delivering on goals set by New Zealand Rugby. A sabbatical is not fundamentally associated with it–but for Smith and his former captain Richie McCaw and center Conrad Smith, it played an important part.

Similar instituted programs exist in rugby unions across the globe. From Irish Rugby, to South Africa and in developing nations. World Rugby have put an emphasis on these measures. Giving it a high priority sees the topic appreciated by both administrators, stakeholders and players.

Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith Benefited from Sabbaticals

The evidence is that the policy developed by NZ Rugby, and used by other unions now, was of benefit to some of the brightest names in Rugby. Former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith being two of those, who profited from the long rest that several months away from the sport allowed them.

Both McCaw and Smith had issues with concussion too. They may have even felt that burnout was a possibility, with the higher frequency of rugby being demanded from players these days. And in 2012 – when McCaw took his break – the number of games played was less.

So McCaw first, then Smith and Daniel Carter in 2013 took the decisions to have a rugby sabbatical as a feature of their contracts.

McCaw told reporters that “I was as fried mentally, as I was physically”. And that sentiment was repeated from Conrad Smith. He told,

“I felt I needed probably a longer break and not to be playing 10 months of every year for the next four years.”

The optimum word being ’10 months a year’. The exposure to stresses and strains on International players is even more increased today. With 17 weeks of regular season Super Rugby, and then virtually straight into any test series and then playing in The Rugby Championship.

That elongated season then sees teams visit the Northern Hemisphere – the All Blacks playing France on Saturday night. A sustained period, where annual leave for some, is just not sufficient.

NZ Rugby Initiated Sabbatical – a Valid Point of Difference

Not every union has the ability to engage in these options. Pocock in Australia, and Ben Smith are on a centralized contract. The union pays their wages, so the difference being an amount of authority that the governing body holds applies to teams and franchises within their control.

The same might apply in Welsh Rugby, but becomes more complicated by the professional club systems in European rugby. A union is not the primary employer, so on behalf of the player they could not introduce any such sabbatical clause. And the clubs are obliged by their shareholders, and would find it very difficult to introduce any contract amendments.

As such, players wanting to sit out any prolonged period by choice, would have to forfeit earnings. A tough call when that is your only earning potential. And an even more critical call, in the cut-throat environment of professional sport. The next player in line is likely to take your position–and may not wish to simply allow you to re-enter the team, at your willing.

But times do change. The ramifications of playing under such intense conditions might see players agents and representatives come up with proposals to put toward those competitions. Not that this article is aware of any now, but when/if remedies are created, they will be combined with player welfare to offer assistance to many wanting to prolong their careers.

What is clear, from the successful use of the rugby sabbatical, is how new Rest and Recuperation policy works. Prioritizing recovery is the primary goal, and in time many others will find it benefits them. Whether they too raise the Webb Ellis Cup, is up to the individual…. we can’t all be Richie McCaw.

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