The Big Interview – Damian Hopley

CEO of the Rugby Players Association Damian Hopley

Damian Hopley, CEO of The Rugby Players Association, speaks exclusively to sportindustry.biz on the responsibility of rugby to look after their players post-careers, and the role the RPA plays in the sport as a whole.

Is there a responsibility of rugby to help players through their career, when it comes to off-the-field matters?

I think there is a tremendous duty of care on the game, given where rugby has come from, with it being an amateur sport not much more than 15 years ago. There has always been a heritage of rugby looking after its own, and that’s certainly something we work very hard on at the RPA to ensure that at the end of a player’s career, the support doesn’t stop. Speaking from personal experience, it is a very lonely time, so we are trying to ensure that there is a support mechanism in place. Through the player development programme and through the clubs themselves rugby is far more enlightened in the current day and age than perhaps they were when the game first went professional. From a cultural perspective we have tried to turn back the clock to ensure that the players are supported as they were previously in the amateur era.

You mentioned yourself briefly, were there lessons you learnt from the other side of the fence when it came to your retirement?

Yes. Never sign anything that is put in front of you 24 minutes before you get on a flight to Hong Kong! We were on the bus to the airport, we were asked to sign a disclaimer for the team (England Sevens), of course at the time I was 25 and thought I would never get injured. I went on to damage my anterior and posterior cruciate ligament and cartilage and realised I got that one a bit wrong.

There was such a chasm of support. In a funny way, I guess I was so angry at the way I had been treated that it proved to be a huge motivation for me to do something about it and set up the players association. I wanted to ensure that I would be one of few players left high and dry from the game after getting an injury. It has been a slower process than we would have liked but we have come on in leaps and bounds in terms of the support for players now. The main message is always for players to take responsibility for themselves across all phases of their professional career. Once you sign a contract, that’s the beginning of the journey, you haven’t made it yet. That was the key lesson for me in a very painful way.

How have things changed since?

If you look at the welfare provisions for players now it’s almost unrecognisable from where it was even five years ago. I still think there are concerns for the game, but support for the players through player development programmes, insurance provisions, confidential counselling and pay level have risen significantly. In terms of the growth of the game it’s mirrored in terms of what support players get but I still believe there is far more we could do as an industry to help players both during and after their careers.

Of course, it is not just a duty of care that the RPA undertakes, what else do you cover?

Our primary role is working as the players union, but we offer player welfare and insurance support, the provision of standard contracts, injury advice support, player development programmes, education, life skills, vocational training, anything we can do to help our players. We are very fortunate that we have the RFU and Premiership Rugby who both make significant contributions to those projects, because they recognise the need to support our players and the need to retain our players in the UK and Aviva Premiership – when there is clearly some significant riches on offer the other side of the channel.

We represent players in contractual disputes, legal disputes, player-to-club and player-to-agent disputes and we also provide support for players outside of that around legal access to family law, barristers etc. There is a whole network and range of services that we provide for our members.

And then, I guess you would call them the sexier bits, are working as the exclusive commercial agents of the England team. We negotiate, and have done since 2004, the players 4 year pay deal based on match fess, win bonuses, image rights, and then we also have our own extensive commercial and events programme that helps to generate revenue that goes back into supporting our players.

Quite a few different chapters in aren’t there?

Yes, it’s a very diverse industry. The player is at the heart of everything we do. Our mantra is that every time a player comes in and speaks to us we want it to be a positive experience. We are always aspiring to improve what we do, and I know there are times we could have performed better on behalf of our players, but from our point of view it’s about learning and moving forward as the game evolves.

We need to try and ensure we manage expectation accordingly, because when you work in what I would call an institutionalised environment of professional sport where a lot of things are done for you, it’s about trying to encourage players to think and act for himself as he would do on the field. That’s an important part of the cultural piece for us.

A big problem that has hit football is social media, with certain players falling foul of rules and there are examples in rugby as well. What advice do you give players on social media? Is it an opportunity or a hindrance?

We run a social media awareness workshop at each of the clubs, taking the guys through some pretty basic and straightforward truths around social media. There are so many examples littered around all sports of players who have been fined, dropped or punished accordingly for things they have said inappropriately about the sport but it’s also particularly around players as role models and being careful about what they say.

There needs to be an awareness that the players are public property and their profile, whilst it’s nowhere near our footballing brethren, has certainly risen. You only have to think about this time last year when we were heavily involved in what was turning out to be a nightmare in New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup. Although we successfully defended the players, I think every single player that was hauled up by the RFU subsequently received a reduced fined or indeed a reduced financial fine.

From our point of view it’s about trying to ensure that the players are aware and have their wits about them, then hopefully common sense prevails, you need to be quite streetwise about how you operate in the wider context. I think particularly for the younger players who would use social media as a straightforward form of communication emphasises the point that anything you say in that forum is like speaking directly to the press. You have to be incredibly careful about what comes out.

Another big talking point, the introduction of BT Vision into the broadcast mix with a massive 4 year investment in the sport. Do you see the stock of rugby rising because of it?

I think it’s huge having another significant media player, albeit new to the sports environment, willing to invest £150m+ into the game over four years. Clearly there are some teething problem around the context of what has gone on but I think for any company of that size to recognise what rugby offers is a significant boost to the sport. There’s a few chapters to go before we see any white smoke flying over Dublin, but one gets the sense that any organisation that recognises rugby as a key part of its sports inventory is fantastic for the game.

Finally, you have worked with the England team for the last 8 years, has the work behind the scenes changed at all since England were given the 2015 rugby world cup?

I think there is a huge amount of excitement for 2015, you only have to look at some of the work we are doing now with the national team, with the sevens team, the stock in English rugby is rising.

Clearly we have a hell of a tough autumn and it’s going to be a very challenging time for the squad to get through four test matches of that kind of calibre. But I think certainly there is a lot of excitement around 2015, having seen the Olympic impact this summer, and having Debbie Jevans in charge as Chief Executive of 2015, you get a sense we can certainly build on what happened this summer. Also, if England can start winning consistently across the season, that’s going to put the sport in a good position going forward.

There is definitely a sense with the new regime that there is definitely a change in style that the players appreciate far more than previous regimes. I think it’s important as a game we work collaboratively to try and make the impact of 2015 as effective as possible. A lot of that starts with what goes on with the guys in white during the tournament, but obviously all the legacy planning, all the build up, all the support that the game can deliver over the next few years is going to be vital in establishing rugby as a huge national sport.

Interview courtesy of sportindustry.biz


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