Former Wallaby James Holbeck will head up a new program aimed at easing players’ transition into post-rugby life, with a renewed focus on mental health in sport.
Holbeck, a seven-Test Wallaby and former Brumbies player, has become Classic Wallabies careers and pathway manager, with the aim of ensuring players can prepare for and transition more easily int post-rugby life.
The death of former Wallabies lock Dan Vickerman in 2017 was a tragic flashpoint for Australian rugby and Holbeck said it had only served to reinforce the importance of discussing mental health struggles.
“I think the tragedy of Daniel Vickerman’s story is going to leave a legacy, they do now feel like they have the permission to speak about this and their struggles,” he said.
“Speaking to a lot of past players there’s a lot of guys that have struggles, it’s not an easy process to go through.
“Now we’re actually addressing it and building support networks.”
Holbeck has been part of a number of recent Rugby Union Players’ Association (RUPA) alumni events, bringing together past players to connect and encourage greater discussion about life outside of rugby.
“There’s a few arms we’re trying to address - one; being a point of connection for players and RUPA’s doing a great job in that space with past player events, and the Classics, through Stephen Hoiles, is running a whole lot of events, like playing games.
"The advantage is players, are coming back together to share stories and they’re more open with where they’re at.
"Sometimes, we might be able to connect them with a mental health specialist, and can also give them opportunities to give back to game.”
The sharp adjustment of retirement, often out of players’ hands, is something Holbeck’s new role will be heavily focused on addressing.
“Sometimes when you fall out of the game, you feel like you have nothing to give anymore,” he said.
“A lot of players leave the game in less than ideal circumstances - through injury, selection, give a lot of service to a club and the nature of the game is that you’re not always needed.
So if a club says, ‘you’re no longer needed’, it’s difficult because all that service in that moment feels like it means nothing.
“This is a way to use their services and remind them they’re an important part of the rugby story.”
Holbeck said it had taken a while for rugby clubs to prioritise balance, but there was a shift beginning towards preparing players for their next stage of their lives.
“We went all in (with professionalism) and we didn’t really know what professionalism looked like, went to the extreme,”
“There have been coaches that said no one can work and not encouraged study and then we realised it’s really important to be working towards something study wise and now it seems the next piece of the puzzle would be to allow them to gain some work.”
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has been key in encouraging the development of a formal structure in this space, support that Holbeck said was critical in changing the mindset in sport when it came to life balance.
"I’ve been an outsider for a few years - Michael Cheika, he seems to feel the new generation are very keen to seek more than just rugby," he said.
"It’s going to be a great influence and it's the senior players who are going to be the agents of change."