Sabbaticals: What are they good for?
It obviously wasn’t the first time a prominent All Black had jumped ship and pursued a lucrative European contract, but it was the first time such a move did not jeopardise his involvement within the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby as a whole.
Despite the unfortunate nature in which the sabbatical ended, (with Carter rupturing his Achilles tendon less than a month in) the idea of taking an extended break from top-level rugby to rest and reassess has only increased in popularity since Carter’s initial test case.
The idea of a sabbatical is similar to that of an ‘OE’, or Overseas Experience, a sort of right of passage for a lot of young people who have just completed long periods of study. In the context of Rugby, the ripe age for an ‘OE’ is around 27-30 years old. It usually comes as a bridge of sorts, connecting the limbo period between the prime of one’s career to their twilight years.
For a top level player in New Zealand, a full season can be as long as 10 months, not including pre-season training. With Super Rugby starting in mid-February, players don’t realistically break until mid-November, after the conclusion of the Autumn test season. All things considered, you can’t exactly blame players for wanting a reprieve.
Former All Black Conrad Smith believes that his sabbatical in 2013 was as much a mental break as it was physical.
“I have played more rugby in the last three or four years than I have any other time, more than when I was 20 and breaking down a lot more. It is funny how it works like that. To me, it is purely personal choice. You can only do the same thing for so long because you become ready for something else.”
The importance of the sabbatical to a player’s overall health and well-being is more evident than ever, but it does pose the question, how beneficial is it to a player’s on-field performance and impact?
Take Conrad Smith for example, who, as previously mentioned, opted for a six-month sabbatical away from rugby in late 2013.
In the years leading up to his sabbatical, Smith had established himself as the senior statesman of the All Blacks midfield. Unquestionable on-field intelligence, rock-solid defence and an uncanny ability to identify gaps and run the right lines earned him the nickname “Snake.”
By then, Smith had earned a total of 75 test caps for the All Blacks (50 of which were alongside his midfield partner Ma’a Nonu) and was integral to New Zealand’s successful World Cup campaign in 2011. He had already carved himself a career that most players dream of, so one could be forgiven for assuming that Smith had already perhaps seen his best days.
Whilst his playing ability and physicality showed no signs of waning, being such a vital figure in New Zealand rugby meant that Smith found that spending extended periods of time away from home was emotionally draining.
Add to that, a number of injuries and head knocks were seen as career-threatening for Smith at the time. So it seemed as though the most appropriate response was to take a break, especially given his ambitions to feature in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
In hindsight, this move proved vital for Smith’s World Cup aspirations. He rejoined the All Blacks in the 2014 season with a fresh perspective and outlook and eventually was able to realise his goal of playing in the 2015 World Cup.
Smith was not the only one who benefitted from this kind of career foresight and planning at the time, both Richie McCaw and Dan Carter had also been on similar sabbaticals following the 2011 World Cup win.
Three players, all with over ten years of international playing experience, were able to refresh and renew their careers despite their age. All three could have retired after the 2011 World Cup, but instead, they chose to fight on and continue.
We often forget that Rugby is a career, it is the sole source of income for many players. And like a lot of jobs, doing it for over ten years without any kind of break can destroy motivation and output.
The Sabbatical is here to stay it seems, and will continue to grow as the need to maintain player well-being also increases in the modern game. It serves as a reflection of a shift towards player safety, and a deviation from the potentially harmful stubbornness of previous eras.
When the players are happy, the rugby is good, and that’s all that we as devoted fans of the great game can ask for.
Watch below: RugbyPass correspondent Ra Pomare caught up with Conrad Smith a few weeks ago in Pau: