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

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific