How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game

It is widely recognised as one of the most rugged and demanding sports on earth but professional rugby league players are increasingly seeking help for psychological problems as the pressures of the game take their toll and lead to drugs, drink or gambling.

The effects of pressure were highlighted most tragically by the death in February 2010 of Wigan’s England hooker Terry Newton, who was given a two-year ban after testing positive for human growth hormone and was found hanged in his home seven months later.

Over the last three years around 100 professional rugby league players have sought help for psychological problems from one clinic alone. This is the startling number of troubled individuals, with a range of problems, who have passed through the doors of the Sporting Chance Clinic, set up by the Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams and the Professional Footballers’ Association in 2000 to deal with issues of addiction.

The clinic says that going there is not a sign of weakness but of strength, with 26-day programmes designed to tackle addictive behaviour – whether it be drink, drugs or gambling – while maintaining a player’s fitness for his return to his club. Or as the Rugby League’s director of operations, Emma Rosewarne, said: “Sometimes it just needs a cup of coffee and a chat. But sometimes it requires a residential stay.”

Rangi Chase, one of Super League’s most gifted players, now with Salford, knows only too well how it helped. “I was a bit sceptical at first, but it was definitely the best thing I have ever done,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with the way I was drinking and I knew I had to change it. Sporting Chance have been a massive reason why I have changed my ways. I haven’t had a drink for about a year now.

“I think players need it because there are a lot of others that suffer problems in rugby, such as gambling, drugs or alcohol, for instance. There are a lot of us in that situation where we feel like we can’t trust anyone and it means that you don’t want talk to anyone about your problems.”

The Warrington forward Ben Harrison suffered from what in layman’s terms would probably be called anxiety.

“I had a lot of issues that had probably been going on for a couple of years. I put them to the back of my mind and thought I could cope,” he said. “The problem was it meant other issues arose from it, but speaking to Sporting Chance helped me realise that it became more than a habit and a bit more serious and more of an addiction.”

According to Karl Fitzpatrick, the former Salford full-back and now the Wolves’ player welfare officer, a role that has to be filled at every professional club: “There has been a change of attitude [in getting help]. Sadly, it took the death of Terry Newton in 2010 to achieve it. Players looked at that and said that, ‘if it can happen to him, it can happen to my team-mates. It can happen to me’.”

Colin Bland, the CEO of Sporting Chance, believes that Warrington are an object lesson in how to use the facility. “The Warrington coach, Tony Smith, is a patron of Sporting Chance and it’s not unusual for a player there to approach Karl Fitzpatrick and ask whether he can come for a consultation,” said Bland.

He estimates that around half of the rugby league players who consult the clinic have problems with prescription drugs – often in harness with other problems – and believes that rugby league could be particularly vulnerable to these sort of problems because of the injuries players routinely take on to the field. With new contracts at stake, players traditionally understate the extent of the wear and tear – physical and mental.

This week’s suspension for the rest of the season of the Australia Test winger David “The Wolfman” Williams is a reminder that it can be compulsive gambling which is the symptom of something fundamentally wrong. The current Australia winger Darius Boyd was given leave this week by his club, the Newcastle Knights, to seek treatment for depression, showing again that it can happen to the very best.

“There has been a change,” says Bland. “Mind you, when we started out in 2000, it was all about Tony Adams and his alcoholism, so for a while we got nothing but footballers with drink problems.’

“Rugby league has done very well in making it acceptable to step forward and get help. We’ve had players here ranging from current internationals to some from the lower divisions.

“Rugby league isn’t a wealthy game, but Emma Rosewarne does very well in accessing what we have to offer.”

That comes out of RFL funds, and the way in which league finances its education programme is rather ingenious. Fines collected from coaches and chairmen for infringing the rules on what they can and can’t say – in the aftermath of a contentious match, for instance – go into a fund, where they are matched pound for pound by the charity Rugby League Cares.

The care extended to the troubled modern player is just part of what the league’s player-welfare programme feels a responsibility to provide these days.

“I never knew Terry Newton and I never had the chance to work with him but his name crops up a lot,” Bland said. “You could say that was part of his legacy.”

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