Rugby boxing clever in battle with depression

Retired players will fight it out in the ring to highlight a taboo subject

At the renowned Peacock Gym in Canning Town, east London, the banter is flying faster than the fists. "Hey, it's the Welsh Don King," someone cries as Colin Charvis, one-time Wales captain and possessor of a proud Afro, tapes his fists for some tentative sparring.

Charvis is one of eight former rugby union and league players training here for a night of white-collar boxing in support of charities and the testimonials of Mark Cueto and Tom Shanklin. There are nerves and there is excitement. The PR blurb for "Rugger in the Ring" unashamedly links the event to the fight against depression among retired sportspeople; a once-taboo subject no longer swept under the canvas.

From Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Flintoff in cricket to boxers Ricky Hatton and Frank Bruno and rugby's John Kirwan, Duncan Bell and Jonny Wilkinson, the dangers to mental health posed by the unique challenges of professional sport – the weekly battle to get selected and succeed; the abrupt loss of the glory and adrenaline when a ludicrously short career is over – are increasingly acknowledged and understood.

Bill Bradley, an NBA basketball player turned US senator, wrote this searing summary in Life on the Run: "There is a terror behind the dream of being a professional ball player. It comes as a slow realisation of finality and of the frightening unknowns which the end brings."

Martin Offiah, Matt Perry, Lee Radford, Sean Long, Alan Quinlan and Brian McDermott are on the bill, and Charvis's opponent will be Fereti Tuilagi, the former St Helens and Leicester Tigers player who will have his brother Manu, the current England centre, as his cornerman.

Each of the novice boxers has been allocated a paid trainer for two months to get them fit and pick up the basics. "Freddie" Tuilagi has slimmed from 118kg to 110. "I feel rejuvenated and I feel better about myself," he said. No one would associate Tuilagi, the eldest of seven brothers, a crushing tackler and now a players' agent and coach, with self-doubt. Yet after he finished playing in 2006 he let himself go.

"I wouldn't say I was depressed, I just lost my way," Tuilagi recalls. "I was drinking a lot and putting on weight. You look in the mirror and see it but you can't help yourself.

"When you have played full-time for 20 years it's all you have known. You no longer have that chance to run over someone, to entertain and perform in front of big crowds. It's hard to explain."

Offiah, a 46-year-old legend of the wing, though not yet the ring, says: "When you retire from playing sport you say goodbye to something you love. We are all of us looking for that rush again."

Rugby players have many fears, almost always unspoken, and mostly to do with loss – of the mapped-out daily routine, the camaraderie and the sustaining vigour of a prolonged youth. Few are likely to earn enough to be set up for life.

There is the uncertainty over what to do next, often without qualifications for a second career. A study by the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association found one in three players will experience depression, anxiety or stress after retirement. Shockingly, the press coverage of the post-career suicides of NFL players Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Ray Easterling speculated that repetitive brain trauma was a factor. Rugby has yet to come to terms with those implications.

Fears over injury and non-selection and doubts over self-worth can also afflict the apparently successful while they are playing. Kirwan, the former All Black, and Bell, the Bath and England prop, described living with the "hidden illness" for years. Yet when Mind, the mental health charity, polled 2,000 British adults this year only 52 per cent responded that if sporting figures had a mental health problem their family should be told; just 48 per cent said their manager should be informed.

Mind say one in four adults experience a mental-health problem; they describe depression as: "in its mildest form… just being in low spirits. It doesn't stop you leading your normal life, but makes everything harder and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, major depression can be life-threatening, because it can make people suicidal or simply give up the will to live."

Quinlan, the former Ireland flanker, has spoken at seminars about the need to support the depressed. After an unaccountable loss of form early in his career he dissolved into tears, crying, "Help me" to the then Munster coach Declan Kidney. To the spectator, "Quinny" was ebullient: part joker, part great defender. But he needed a psychotherapist after blowing his chance of a Lions tour in 2009 with a ban for eye-gouging, and he had to cope with separating from his wife the following year.

"Professional sport is getting more and more about performance, about winning, and it doesn't always work out well for people," says Quinlan. "I can look back now and reflect that I had a fulfilling career. But that whole thought of it coming to an end is tough to deal with."

So "Rugger in the Ring" is both a welcome source of income – from £20,000 to £35,000 if they win through to, and do well in, a box-off in Dublin next March – and inspiration. David Barnes of the Rugby Players' Association says: "There is an argument over whether a rugby player would be naturally more resilient or more vulnerable due to the pressures of the job. John Kirwan says depression is something you can treat. Educating the players on the signs and symptoms is important. So is coaching the coaches. A coach with an open mind will find he has a better player."

Suitable cases for treatment

John Kirwan

Depression struck the former wing at the height of his career of 63 Tests for New Zealand. From believing a poor performance to be "an absolute disaster" he reached the stage where he "didn't care about football, it was just about survival". Kirwan later wrote a book, All Blacks Don't Cry.

Jonny Wilkinson

England's most famous fly-half revealed in his autobiography last year how an obsession with practice combined with multiple injury lay-offs drove him to depression in 2006. Through sessions with a therapist, and with the help of Buddhist teachings, he came through bouts of self-harming.

Alan Quinlan

The former Munster and Ireland flanker endured serious doubts over his self-worth towards the end of a successful playing career, but was helped by sessions with a psychotherapist. He now speaks for the Lean on Me campaign to support people with depression.

"Rugger in the Ring" is at the Grange City Hotel, London, on 6 November. For tickets, call 07812 800 125 or email hannah.s@e2bgroup.com. IoS readers can obtain a 20 per cent discount by quoting ref IND10

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering