It is the moment every professional rugby league player supposedly dreads. The dream of being a full-time player is over, and it is time to embrace a dramatic change of lifestyle: combining training on evenings with the prospect of heading out into the real world to either find a job or adapt to more time at home than you’re used to.
For years, going part-time has been seen as a death knell in the career of many players. The acceptance that you’re no longer good enough and you can’t cut it with the best any longer – but try telling that to three of the most recognisable players to have graced Super League in recent years. 2020 has seen a slew of big names drop down to the Championship and go part-time; Jodie Broughton, Chris Clarkson, Danny Addy to name but three.
Also among them is Brett Ferres, a winner of multiple major honours at the highest level and an England international on over a dozen occasions. For him, having been full-time since his breakthrough at Bradford 15 years ago, the decision to go part-time was entirely his own, having rejected offers from Super League clubs to sign at Featherstone.
But why would a player so in-demand decide he wanted to give up the supposed dream of being a full-time professional in favour of spending his Tuesday and Thursday evenings on a muddy field? “You can get lost in the bubble of full-time rugby, and I certainly did that for about 12 years,” he explains. “When I hit 30, I started to think there was a bit more to life than all of this.. the long days training, the flogging yourself into the ground.
“You never get too much time to do a great deal within rugby because it’s so constant and such a slog, and it’s very emotionally tough. It can leave you feeling a bit empty, and my structure and routine is pretty good now.”
Ferres is not the only player to feel reinvigorated after stepping away from full-time rugby. Shaun Lunt has endured an 18-month stint in his life which could have broken many people: including a life-threatening battle against sepsis. Having failed to secure a deal at Leeds Rhinos for 2020, Lunt’s career was firmly at a crossroads: but he knew deep down what he had to do next.
“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.”
Ferres and Lunt are both keen to hammer home the point that there is much more to life than the ‘rugby bubble’ – a point not lost on another England international who has also stepped away from full-time rugby. Matty Smith spent time with both Catalans and Warrington last year; turning down a deal with the latter for 2020 to sign at Widnes.
“It’s billed as a devastating moment, going part-time, and while doing it for a living full-time is incredible, there is another side to it all,” he admits. “What it has allowed me to do is step back, play the game at a good level and maybe think about what I do after my career in terms of where I want my life to go. I’m doing my coaching badges, and it sets me up for what I do after playing.”
Family has played an important role for all three men and their decision. The trio all have young children, and while the buzz gained from playing rugby at the highest level is one thing, experiencing once-in-a-lifetime moments with your family is clearly another. “My twins are three, my little boy is five.. you can’t get those years back when they’re growing up,” Smith insists.
Ferres agrees. “My little man is only ten months old, he gets up about 9am, we have breakfast, walk the dog and then we both have a nap,” he laughs. “I can do the school run and pick my two girls up and it helps my partner out massively, because she works. We do nice things as a family, we’ve done lots of work on our house that we haven’t been able to before.. and I really like it. It’s been really refreshing for my life and career.”
Both Ferres and Smith are spending their extra time at home. Smith is still training full-time away from Widnes to maintain his fitness. But Lunt has taken the plunge into combining work several days a week alongside his new life as a Batley Bulldogs player. “The main thing for me was that the next move had to be right for my family,” he says.
“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. My wife has put me first for the last ten years: she’s sacrificed literally everything. 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.”
Happiness is a recurring theme for all three men. They all have different aspirations; Ferres has not ruled out returning to full-time rugby in the future, while Lunt has already forged a path for himself post-rugby with his new job working for Signature Resin in Halifax. But the one thing they do share is the fact they have all been given a new lease of life by taking the step many full-time professionals dread.
“I’ve really taken to the new life,” Ferres explains. “I made the choice to go part-time myself, having spoken to some Super League teams. It was right for me and my family, and where we were at this time.
“It’s a tough old slog, full-time rugby, and as much as it’s enjoyable, it’s hard. I feel in the best condition I’ve been in for a long time, and I’m mentally very relaxed. We now talk about what we’re going to do as a family the following day rather than me drag myself out of bed to go and hit full-time training again. It just shows you that there is life outside of Super League.”