‘I was mentally fried’: Shaun Lunt on how part-time rugby has given him a new lease of life after 12 months of hell

For the first time in a long time, there is a smile on Shaun Lunt’s face when he is asked about rugby league. To say it has been a rollercoaster year for the 32-year-old would be some understatement; this time last year, he was recovering from a life-threatening battle with sepsis, before a dramatic mid-season switch to Leeds from Hull KR. Then, at the end of last season, he was told he wouldn’t be offered a new deal by the Rhinos and he was facing up to the prospect many full-time players dread: having to head into the real world, get an actual job and play part-time.

“For years, it’s made out to be the thing you never want to happen, going part-time,” Lunt explains as he begins to unload. We’re sat in a coffee shop close to his home in West Yorkshire and, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t excepting the former England international to be quite this open, and quite this frank about life. “But I can honestly sit here now and tell you to your face that this is the best thing that has happened to me in years.”

It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. “Don’t get me wrong, when it dawns on you that your full-time days are probably over, it is a little bit worrying knowing you’ve got to go through a transition.. but to be completely honest? I’d had enough anyway.” The mental and physical exertions rugby league players put themselves through are well-documented. It’s a brutal industry, one which, as history shows, can take people to very dark places indeed. Lunt is in no mood to hide how he feels about how the last 12 months had taken him to the brink, too.

“I was mentally fried by the end of last season – I was absolutely exhausted emotionally,” he explains. “Towards the end of the season, I was waking up and questioning my life, asking what the hell I was doing putting myself through this each and every day. Do I really need to be doing this? But now, I’m jumping out of bed every morning and I’m excited for the day ahead. Wayne Bennett always said you should quit a year too early rather than a year too late. I still think I could do one more year in Super League, but mentally, I didn’t have it in me.

“I didn’t have that motivation to run every day, to train the house down and stuff like that. People don’t genuinely know this until now, but in the second training session with Leeds after signing, I fully ruptured the ATFL ligament in my foot. That’s a six-to-eight week injury – but I was back within a week because I was under pressure to get a deal. I had to deal with that mentally, but luckily I had some great physio staff, Alex and Gaz, at Leeds. Then to put yourself through that and be told there’s no deal.. you have to take yourself away and question whether what you’re doing is worth it.”

Lunt did exactly that. He escaped on holiday with family, but the concerns among his closest relatives about how Lunt would cope without the career he has cherished for over 15 years were very real. “My family were definitely panicking about my welfare without a full-time contract, but honestly, I was fine,” he insists. “Come on… I was nearly dead this time last year. Compared to that, I’m in a very good place, aren’t I? I went and enjoyed myself, let myself go mentally and did whatever I wanted without the pressure of going back into pre-season training overweight for the first time in years. The mental burden I was able to unload was unreal. It left me relaxed about what happened next.”

Having not turned professional until the age of 21, Lunt had plumbing qualifications to fall back on in case his playing career was over – but he insists that most professional players would swap a full-time playing career for a job with similar money and, crucially, security. “I didn’t have any interest coming in for me from other teams at first, and thankfully, the plumbing qualifications for me were a bit of a safety blanket knowing that if I had to stop, I did have something. You’ve seen players get into dark places after they can’t play full-time anymore and a lot of people say it’s because they miss the team camaraderie – but I can assure that if you offered a Super League player a regular job with security instead of a playing career, 50 per cent of them would leave the game and stop playing in an instant. I’m very privileged to play rugby and experience the things that have come with it, but the day-to-day grind is not what it’s cracked up to be.”

Mentally exhausted by his own admission, Lunt began to field calls from part-time teams about offers to play in 2020. However, after so many ups and downs over the past year, he knew it was time to do something altogether different. “I spoke with Featherstone and Widnes, and while I would have loved to work with Tim Sheens all over again, I was sick of the travelling,” he insists. “You don’t realise how much that breaks you down over a period of time, and it’s something that you don’t see on a day-to-day basis, how rough it is being away from home and things like that.

“The main thing for me was that it was the right move for my family. My wife has put me first for the last ten years, she’s sacrificed literally everything. She’s never had a problem doing that but it’s time for me to give something back to her. She works Monday to Friday, and I can help with the kids and do the school run. I’m in work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to pay the bills but believe me, I turned down more money elsewhere because I wanted to be happy. Batley felt like a match made in heaven. They can make me happy.”

Lunt agreed to sign for Batley in a move that surprised many, given how he is still only 32. “I could have done another year in Super League ability-wise, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put myself through it all over again. I just wanted to be happy, and enjoy playing. Throughout my career I’ve spent so much energy trying to win trophies – or in recent years, trying to survive. It’s been a breath of fresh air going into a club like Batley and seeing lads give so much for so little. I feel happy for the first time in a long time.”

Lunt’s admiration of part-time players, as someone who started in the lower-leagues, has always been there. But he admits: “This isn’t a dig at Super League players, but I have so much more respect for the lads who play part-time because most of them are getting minimal pay. Some of them are only getting match money, and they go grafting in really tough jobs and they have to come and train, but every single one of them does it with a smile on their face. I admire them so much.”

He has combined his new career as a part-time rugby player with an exciting new venture off the field, taking the step many players dread: full-time employment. “Working with Signature Resin in Halifax is great, and it’s a job that I feel I can craft a career out of,” he insists. “It’s a great buzz, and while some full-time lads probably dread having to go and get a job, it’s been a breath of fresh air for me and exactly what I needed. I’ve got into it at the right time, there’s a great team of guys there and it’s something I’m really embracing. Of course, it’s different from training every morning – but it’s given me a new lease of life.”

But Lunt’s relationship with rugby league is far from over. “I believe I’ve got a lot to offer the game and I would love to educate people on the harsh realities of this sport, and what players have to go through both mentally and physically,” he explains. “I want to give something back to the sport and try and explain what people put themselves through to play this game. As for Batley, they understand what I want from this deal, too. They know I just want to play. I’ve turned down far more money elsewhere to sign for them, so I’m not in this for a paycheque. After so long, I just want to be able to enjoy playing rugby. I think I can do that at last.”