For many players, once the real world returns to focus after the obligatory New Year's celebrations, January is uncomfortable. Not, as you might expect, because of the nasty weather making their little legs all cold and goose pimply, and not because of impending tax returns. No, for the unfortunate few, January lands bang in the middle of contract negotiations.
Now, as in every line of work, many different personality types make up a 40-man rugby squad. There are the computer-game-addicted drones who seem immune to the implied pressures of continued employment. And there are the players who, through talent or timing, find themselves on the menu as flavour of the month at exactly the right time. In my experience, however, these two groups form a very small portion of any squad. The rest are worriers, speculators and doom mongers.
It would be easy to label these men as self-pitying ingrates but, for me, that would be ignorant. Consider the situation of the average Aviva Premiership rugby player; a man who should really have foreseen this day and worked harder at school but didn't, and who, consequently, has little else to do. A man who has achieved "expert" status in his chosen profession but who would enter any other job on the bottom rung.
Often this man will also have a family to support. Please do not see any of this as a complaint; we sporty types chose to do what we do and know what we are getting into, but the fact remains that very few players are afforded the luxury of retiring on their own terms. Injury or the arrival of a more useful piece of meat tend to hasten matters.
The key, I think, to the angst felt so often by so many is uncertainty. Rugby contracts generally end in June, and official approaches by outside clubs are illegal until 1 January. Without dishing too much dirt, we've all received the odd call before the official watershed and we all hear rumours before Christmas that bear fruit by March. For the most part, however, things are done by the book and, come 9.01am on 2 January, players begin disappearing into car park corners and calling their agents for news.
For some, there are immediate offers to either accept or use to speed up the invariably glacial process with the current employer. These are the lucky ones. For many, there is little news. Some clubs are considering their options, some are waiting on the decision of a current player and others are having a board meeting in a few weeks. So the waiting begins and time ticks away. "Five more payments," we say to one another, "then I'm moving back in with Mum and Dad." A bit dramatic, but fear lies behind these jokes.
Predictably, players react differently to this treatment. Some see it as a challenge and become more motivated to prove their worth and render any doubters wrong. We would all like to react like this, but you never know until you enter this familiar sporting limbo. It is like saying that any fool who ever decided to break into your home while you were sleeping would be met by a version of Mike Tyson. Actually, when the bogeyman wanders in, things might be different.
It affects everything I do. Security,for me, is everything. I have a morbid fear of uncertainty (yes, I even plan days off by the minute) and if my employment is not assured – and the only assurance that counts is the signed contract – my rugby, training, home life and general mood visibly change. This doesn't mean that for the last 14 years I have just signed anything that was put in front of me. I am aware of my disposition and, sometimes painfully, manage to do as my agent (and friend) advises me when every fibre of my body tells me just to sign, sign, sign. Once things are sorted and the ink is dry, I can thrive again.
The only way to handle this periodis for the decision makers to be brutally honest. Draw up three lists: one of players who must never be allowed to leave, one of the dispensable and one of those who could go either way depending on performance and on availability of others.
The "must-stays" are signed up by Christmas at the latest, whateverit takes; if they are that good, their introduction to January's open market will only drive their value up. Those mere mortals who make up the remainder of these lists must also be told of their status before Christmas because they will need time to prepare for the next challenge, be it in rugby or the rat race.
Yes it's a gamble to give players bad news when, ultimately, they still need to perform until the end of the season, but it remains the noble thing to do. A rugby player who knows where he stands can act to secure his future. All that is needed is for the suits upstairs to give the psychological state of their most important assets an appropriate weight of importance. Rugby is about solidarity and integrity as much as ruthlessness and brutality.
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