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'Not every player is going to have brain health issues and not every person with early onset dementia played rugby'

By Owain Jones
Conrad Smith and Richard Kahui (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

When Conrad Smith hung up his battered size 11 adidas boots, he could have chosen to do pretty much anything he wanted.

A 94-cap All Black, and routinely in the conversation for the best player ever to wear the No 13 shirt, Smith could have headed into finance, coaching or even politics, but what nagged away at him was an intrinsic desire to give back to the game that had given him so much and allowed him to pinball around the rugby world for 15 years.

His final days as a rugby player were spent in the shadows of the Pyrenees, playing for Pau in the Top 14 and savouring the laid-back French way of life, where the State does a nifty line in post-rugby benefits.

Speaking to RugbyPass from New Plymouth, where he has relocated with his family, Smith had always had an interest in player welfare and was au fait with the workings of the New Zealand RPA throughout his illustrious career, in which he was a double-World Cup winner. “I have a legal background, so I was already leaning towards going a bit deeper in the game. As a player, you see the contractual side of things, but I wasn’t overly drawn to the commercial side. What pulled me into the IRPA (International Rugby Players Association) fold was a sense of wanting to be part of a cause I believed in. Whether I’d played rugby or not was immaterial. As a personality, it was something I wanted to do. When it comes to the players, I’ve always wanted to help, and in my playing days, I was able to explain certain legalese to players who didn’t understand finer details as much as I did.”

Smith did, in fact, try his hand at a bit of coaching with Pau, which he enjoyed, but knew that player-welfare was the type of work I wanted to do. Now 40, Smith is head of player welfare for the organisation. “I’m not saying I’m going to do it forever, but it is certainly motivating me at the moment,” he smiles.

Rugby is in something of a bind at present. Emerging from the catharsis of the pandemic, riven by legal disputes over brain injury and perpetually locked in internecine battles over the global calendar, to the common bystander it feels like the game is having an existential crisis, yet Smith says this navel gazing is nothing new.

“You always get criticisms about the state of the game. I was speaking to a bunch of ex-players who’d played in the Seventies. They were bemoaning the quality of play and I had to stop them, and say, ‘how can you criticise play, I used to watch you playing games that ended 9-6. These days, at least tries are scored, and it’s faster-paced. They had to say, ‘ah okay, fair point’.”

The former All Black says rugby is facing up to its issues because it cares about its players. “As a game, we are trying to do the right things around head contact and protecting players. We are having to walk the line of what law changes influence the entertainment package we offer. If I can use the rugby league example, they have had more head impacts in that game, but fiercely defend the entertainment factor, and they aren’t doing as much as union. They say, ‘we’ve still got a great product’ but I look at them and think, the people in charge must feel a sense of responsibility towards the players. That’s the road rugby union has chosen to go down.”

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Smith furrows his brow and accepts that it is simply not possible to keep every stakeholder happy. “Some will say, ‘you’re not going far enough in your laws, there are still head impacts, while at the other end, you still have people saying, ‘stop tinkering, there’s too many stoppages, too many cards, this isn’t the rugby we grew up with’. The game is trying to protect players and while trying to negate any impact on the game. Often these are 51-49 decisions and the only bellwether of public opinion we have is social media which doesn’t offer balance. It’s opinionated, divisive, emotive and in real-time. Someone must sit in the middle and make a call, and that’s World Rugby.”

In his role, Smith is regularly in dialogue with Test level players. What constantly impresses him is how engaged they are with their physical and mental health. “I get the impression some people think players just blindly follow any instructions they’re given and just want to play but it couldn’t be further from reality. I’m pleasantly surprised how curious they are. I often give away more information than I intended because the players are desperate to be part of the decision-making process and how the game is run.”

One of the most polarising issues facing rugby right now is brain injuries and how to deal with them. Smith isn’t immune to the discourse being played out in public. “I do believe there is evidence to suggest there is a link between head contacts in rugby and health issues later in life and there is no doubt this is the biggest challenge for the game and all contact sports. Indeed I spend the majority of my time on this issue, so I take it very seriously.”

However Smith also believes some balance is required. “Not every rugby player is going to have brain health issues and not every person with early onset dementia played rugby. I’ve had my fair share of concussions, so I share and understand their fears but when you talk to doctors, their reaction isn’t, ‘this only affects rugby’. They know there are hundreds and thousands of people who have never played the game who have had early-onset dementia but because it’s our rugby family and cases are highlighted in the media, cases feel closer to home. The medical profession says, ‘it is a disease that is much bigger than rugby’, and if you look at the figures, most early Alzheimer’s sufferers are female and very low numbers have actually played contact sport. I know it’s a frustration in the medical profession that we make this continual link.”

Smith says research is still ongoing. “The governing body are spending a lot of money on research and that is to be lauded. When you look at the raw data, you know that these neurological diseases are far bigger than rugby and contact sport.”

As part of the same conversation, player load is also being scrutinised with some Test players, for example, England’s Freddie Steward, crossing the 30-game mark this summer. “As the season has got longer and the rugby more physically demanding, we’ve been trying to find the sweet spot. We’ve bandied round the 30-game mark, but players are all different. I’ve had seasons where I played 30 games, managed myself and I’ve felt alright but cumulatively, maybe I started to feel a bit leggy following season. We’re at the stage where we’re having to rely on the research and science. Workload in a training week and what the body is going through is being closely monitored. As soon as we have something definitive, we can add more weight to the argument. The problem is we’ll have to go to unions, clubs who are investing millions and try and convince them to play the players less.”

The former Hurricanes midfielder says he is confident, that as rugby evolves, it can reduce the amount of games played by its stars and still and boast a competitive Test window and attractive club competitions.

“Things are changing, and public pressure is influencing decisions made by coaches and everyone within the game. Concussion is being taken a lot more seriously. I’ve been around the game for a long time, and in my experience, the doctors I’ve dealt with have always been super-professional, but I couldn’t say the same about coaches and other players, and they’d say the same themselves, because there simply wasn’t the same level of education and data there is now. As soon as we get some credible science, and research and some university backed data, maybe in the next couple of years we’ll be able to tell if a player plays x-number of games, he is putting himself at more danger of risk. I’m just speculating at this point, but personally, I think that’s where we’ll get to. It’s what the game needs.”

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Maro Itoje of England goes off injured during game two of the International Test Match series between the Australia Wallabies and England at Suncorp Stadium on July 09, 2022 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

As for player care in-game, Smith says there have been big strides made. “The fact Tom Curry, Maro Itoje, Tomos Francis and Garry Ringrose were sent home during the summer tests was encouraging. You could argue that that wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago and a lot of that is down to public pressure. I believe that as a result of all the research being done, there will eventually be a number of recommendations for the sport to minimise the risk of head impact and head injuries. I am hypothesising here but one such recommendation could be that every player has a period of three months without contact every calendar year. This, personally, is something I’d love to see happen. When we’ll get to that stage, who knows? I know there’s a heap of research coming through about training load compared to match load. For instance, if you talk about G-forces and contacts, training rarely, if ever, reaches match intensity. Hopefully that will be in the next 12-18 months.”

With increased focus on safety, and the consequent lowering of the tackle height, games are regularly punctuated with yellow and red cards, leading to friction with referees from players, coaches and watching fans. It is something that doesn’t surprise Smith. “Players will always be frustrated with laws that don’t reflect the reality of the game. For instance, if they feel like they didn’t have a chance to react or drop their body height and they get refs telling them something that’s not realistic, they’ll vocalise their displeasure. In saying that, regarding the focus around head contact, if it’s going to help them and the game reduce the number of concussions or HIAs, then players are all for it. There are tough decisions on giving out cards they don’t agree with but if the bigger picture is making the game safer, they will largely back it.”

Changing the minds of the coaches is a tougher sell because they’re so focused on winning. The ‘win at all costs’ mentality means their criticisms are a lot louder than the players, in Smith’s experience. “Talk to the players away from the coaches and they’re a lot more understanding. That’s a big part of our role. We are constantly talking to referees and World Rugby to help them understand the subtle nuances of a fast-evolving game and how to build laws around it, and that’s not easy.”

Away from the field of play, Smith still says player care is still massively under-resourced but that in years gone by, it barely existed. “The whole idea of looking after retired players is the area I spend a considerable amount of time on. Even player associations have faced this problem because we look after current Test internationals. You see, when you retire you’re no longer a member but conversely the needs of retired players are even greater. They’re often forging a new career; a new identity and the reality is some of them face mental health issues. As a sport, we are way behind the curve.”

An online process, where any player in the world can access and get the information they need is underway but it’s still a little way away, Smith says. “Like any industry, there is a lot of worry out there. Players want to get heard. They want someone to speak to. They’re not asking for a one-to-one, bespoke service, but want more than they get right now.”

With hundreds of players not finding new contracts this year, there are players out there who are struggling not only financially, but also for a purpose. “The toughest time is just after they retire. Some expect to get into a coaching role because that’s all they’re qualified to do, but there aren’t many roles to go round. I can tell you, in New Zealand, there are lots of All Blacks coaching in high school’s right now!”

That deep-seated desire to make rugby a better vocation for the next generation of rugby internationals drives Smith. “The thing I’m most passionate about is the idea that there is a support network for players when they leave the game. They love the game of rugby, not just the 80 minutes we see them play. They love the sense of community, the individuals involved and that doesn’t stop when they lace up their boots for the last time. They need to have a designated pathway to a happy retirement. We don’t want to just pick up those who’ve reached their nadir; the gambler, or the alcoholic. Finishing the game is difficult at every level, from the superstar to the journeymen players. I’m doing this job because I want to make a difference.”

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