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Rugby League has taken an increasingly progressive and proactive approach in recent years towards safeguarding the health of players and staff involved with full-time and part-time clubs.


Led by Rugby League Cares, the sport now has a comprehensive support structure in place across the whole professional and semi-professional game.


Player welfare managers meeting


Since taking on responsibility for player welfare provision in 2019, RL Cares has accelerated the fantastic work done by the Rugby Football League and its former Director of Welfare Emma Rosewarne.


The success of the game’s wellbeing programmes reflects the wholehearted backing RL Cares has received from club CEOs and head coaches, who have embraced the need for everyone working in what is often a high-pressure – and sometimes insecure – environment to have support mechanisms in place.


As part of the RFL’s Operational Rules, every Super League club now has to employ a dedicated full-time player wellbeing manager (PWM); full-time Championship are required to have a part-time wellbeing manager in place; and all other Championship and League 1 clubs must have a designated welfare contact.


While club coaches, doctors, physios, masseurs and other coaching staff focus on a player’s performance, the PWM plays a critical role in ensuring athletes maintain a healthy equilibrium in all other aspects of their life.


“The game as a whole has recognised that wellbeing should be first and foremost in what they do,” said RL Cares Director of Welfare and Wellbeing Steve McCormack. “The life of a high-level athlete is tough and supporting them is crucial to the success of both the clubs and the sport.


“Working with the clubs, Super League and the RFL, we have put in place whole-person wellbeing programmes which are delivering on a daily basis.”


Clubs are constantly evaluated for their wellbeing delivery across a range of measures: at Super League level, these include having a minimum of 80 per cent of players have a ‘dual career’, where they have active interests away from playing, such as active education and training, running a business or networking. Every player over 20 must also engage with RL Cares’s transition programme, which helps them map out their journey into new careers once they hang up their boots.


RL Cares also undertakes an extensive player and club wellbeing audit of clubs three times each year involving senior executives, PWMs and coaches. The views of players on wellbeing provision is canvassed via an anonymous survey at the end of every season: last year more than 300 player responded.


“The feedback from the audits and the player surveys are allowing us to strive towards achieving gold standard at every club and there is a shared aspiration to get to that level,” added McCormack.


“The wellbeing managers are key to that aspiration. The demographic and the experiences they bring to what can be a tough and challenging role is vast.”


Whilst the wellbeing of senior players is their main priority, the PWMs also oversee welfare provision for scholarship, Academy, reserve, women, wheelchair, PDRL and LDRL teams, alongside other staff and volunteers with specialist training and expertise.


PWMs are drawn from all walks of life and are there to advise players in both good times and bad: as well as educating players on issues such as game rules, safeguarding, transition, doping regulations and spirituality, the PWMs are there for players in times of need.


McCormack believes the importance of their function was put into sharp perspective during the Covid-19 pandemic.


“In many ways they were the unsung heroes of the pandemic,” said McCormack. “The work they did in tough times when the lives of players and staff at every club were mired in stress, anxiety and financial pressure was simply outstanding.


“A lot of people in the sport lost family members and the PWMs were there to help many of their colleagues through devastating periods of grief.”


The PWMs include former players who are able to share their own experiences of life as a professional athlete, which can be invaluable in helping them relate to the issues facing the sport’s modern-day heroes.

One of the longest-serving PWMs is Feka Paleaaesina, the former Wigan, Salford Hull and New Zealand international prop, who has fulfilled the role at Hull FC for the last 10 years.


“I’ve been through many of the dramas that affect players, things like worrying about transitioning, not being selected, coming back from injury and uncertainty over whether you’re going to get another contract,” said Paleaaesina.


“I’m a bit of a dinosaur now so never had the pressures that 20-year-olds face from social media, for example, but they know I’m here and always willing to listen.


“I’m the first person down to training and open up the facility. That way I can see everyone as they arrive and can gauge who might need a quiet word or want to speak about something deeper.”


Just as one of the strengths of RL Cares’s involvement in player wellbeing is the charity’s independence from the RFL and the clubs, the trust and confidence in their PWM is an essential factor for players.

“Confidentiality and trust are hugely important,” said Paleaaesina. “If you break that trust then it spreads like wildfire through the team. When it comes to player welfare, there are no second chances.


“I’m proud of the trust I have developed with the players and staff here at Hull FC. It’s a 24/7 job and people know I’m here for them, whether it’s a small matter or a big issue.


“Players have got better at reaching out. When I played there was a reluctance to ask for help, and people would use that hateful phrase ‘Man up.’ That’s no longer the case.”


RL Cares’s responsibility for player wellbeing reaches across the globe with McCormack having a strong working relationship with his counterpart in the NRL, Paul Heptonstall, to ensure southern hemisphere players playing in the UK, and British players at NRL clubs, are well supported.


The charity also works closely with the Oceania RL group established by Doncaster CEO Carl Hall, which supports players and their families from the Pacific islands who are living and working in the UK.


“The sport’s wellbeing provision has improved significantly in the last few years, as has trust in RL Cares and the PWMs, but we are constantly striving to be better,” added McCormack.


“The amount of resource we invest in the wellbeing of our stakeholders has never been higher and there is a shared determination across the sport to do the best we can with those resources.”


A version of this article first appeared in Rugby League World magazine.

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