If half your vocabulary consists of words like “scrum” and “blindside”, you know every move of the All Blacks’ haka, and the highlight of your year is the Six Nations Championship, then maybe you’ll find your career calling as a professional rugby player.
Sounds intriguing, but don’t know where to start?
This guide has it all: the ins and outs of the profession, the skills you’ll need to succeed, the money you’ll be earning, and the steps to becoming a rugby player.
Rugby is a demanding impact sport that can strain players’ bodies over a prolonged period of time. So, in addition to game day, players spend most of their time in rigorous training developing physical fitness, strength and endurance. Speed and mobility, aerobic and anaerobic fitness, coordination, power, and strength are developed constantly.
Rugby players also spend time drilling the five core skills necessary for rugby: passing techniques (such as pop passes and spin passes), running techniques, on-field communication, tackling, and decision-making under pressure.
The main duties and responsibilities of rugby players include:
- Training physically
- Playing matches on weekdays and weekends, day and night
- Making public appearances, speaking at conferences and events to promote the sport, team or club
- Taking part in media interviews
- Traveling overnight and overseas
Like any sport, rugby can be lonely and tiring. It requires dedication to maintaining peak physical form, devotion to a team, and confidence in the public eye. On the other hand, rugby players can be highly paid, retire early, and travel the world (usually on someone else’s dime).
So, before you start practicing your Rugby World Cup victory speech in front of your mirror, consider if you would thrive under those conditions.
Outside of game day, rugby players spend most of their time in physical training. This is usually five times a week. Workdays are shorter than a typical 9 to 5 job, but training is intense and can take place indoors and outdoors in every weather condition.
Rugby games are normally played on the weekends, but evening matches during weekdays are also common. Beyond training and matches, rugby players also spend time in coaching, as well as meeting with physiotherapists and nutritionists.
Professional rugby games are 80 minutes in length, divided into two 40-minute halves and a 15-minute break at halftime. In real-time, this means they usually take between 100 and 120 minutes, or roughly two hours.
Every team might train differently, but a general weekly program consists of 220 minutes of training. While that might not seem like much, the level of training within those hours is intense.
Rugby is actually safer without pads. This is because there are strict rules governing how players make contact with opposing team members, and infractions on these rules can result in penalties or even suspensions.
Nevertheless, injuries are common in rugby. The most common injuries that rugby players encounter are concussions, fractures and dislocations. Tendinitis, bursitis and soreness caused by extended running and muscle overuse are also potential health concerns. Since players don’t wear protective masks or helmets, facial injuries are common, including facial fractures, cuts and bruises.
Studies show that athletes rate the meaningfulness of their work above average. There are also indications that job satisfaction among rugby players can be either high or low, depending on personal motivation.
Rugby players have careers that are normally hobbies they developed into advanced roles as professionals. The need to continually perform at a high level, injuries, and on-field mistakes can all take a psychological toll on players and make them lose motivation.
Since it is a very specific career, market statistics for rugby players are difficult to gauge. That said, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook reported that employment among all athletes is expected to grow by 36% between 2021 and 2031.
That number might sound promising, but becoming a professional athlete is highly competitive. A projected 36% increase is significantly greater than the national average of 5%, but this only amounts to around 2,900 openings per year across all sports.
On average, athletes in the US (including rugby players) make about $358,080 a year, according to the BLS’s Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics survey. This, of course, varies depending on experience, with annual starting salaries averaging $28,510 — on the other end of the spectrum, salaries average $239,200 a year.
Location is also an important factor, with athletes based in Indiana commanding salaries of $702,270 a year. This is followed by athletes in Ohio, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey, with average yearly earnings of $648,120, $213,540, $189,800 and $184,060, respectively.
Generally speaking, earnings differ significantly depending on the club, region, team, and a player’s abilities. Rugby players don’t have a single wage amount.
Endorsement deals and fan interest can have a significant effect on salaries, too. A closer look at some of the highest paid players in rugby can show how much yearly salaries can vary in the sport.
Players also receive bonuses for wins, including world cup matches, and make additional income on image rights when personal images are used in association with teams and clubs. The overall amount for these deals depends entirely on the amounts agreed upon by players and their respective organizations.
Here’s a quick rundown of athlete salaries across the US:
First and foremost, rugby players need to have a high level of skill in the sport. More generally, they need to also have multiple skills and qualities that are shared with other sports, including:
- A high fitness level: Rugby players need to maintain high levels of fitness to ensure they can compete at peak performance. This means making a lifestyle choice to remain in top physical form all year round.
- An ability to work under pressure: Athletes playing for major teams are constantly under the public eye. With thousands of screaming fans watching, what takes 30% of your energy during training might take 50–75% on game day.
- Self-discipline: Professional sports can be draining. Players need to develop a way of staying motivated and focused on winning.
- An ability to take criticism: Unlike most professions, when athletes make mistakes, they are broadcast for the world to see. Professional rugby players need to be able to take criticism from coaches, team members and the public.
- Teamwork skills: For any rugby player to excel, they need to know how to operate as a team on the pitch and off it.
- A competitive nature: Since rugby is a full-contact sport, players need to be comfortable with constant competition that is also physical in nature.
Athletes often develop an interest in their sport at a young age by joining a junior league or school team. Children start by playing Tag Rugby, a non-contact form of the sport.
If you got into the sport a little later in life, though, don’t worry: we’ve got you covered! In this section, we’ll be covering a list of steps you should take to pursue a career as a rugby player.
Step 1: Determine if it’s the right career for you
While there are no formal education requirements for playing rugby professionally, there are many general factors to consider when choosing a career. These include passion, skills, personality type, interests, values, and long-term career goals.
Let’s take the skills example and apply it to rugby. Ask yourself the question: “Do I have the physical abilities necessary for rugby?” If the answer is “no”, then you have two options:
- Make a plan to develop these skills.
- Don’t pursue rugby as a career (if you have no interest in developing them).
If you’re unsure what the best career fit is for you, there are resources that can help guide your search. Our very own career test over at CareerHunter, for example, can match you to the career you’re most suited to.
Step 2: Contact a local club or rugby union
While many kids learn to play sports with their friends and family members, many also start playing after their parents sign them up for a league. But even if you didn’t start playing as a child, the same rules still apply.
As a teenager, you should try to make contact with a local league or rugby union. With a local league, you can train with coaches who have either gone professional or semi-professional. This will give you the opportunity to receive hands-on training, along with assessments of your potential and progress.
League play goes beyond the informal play and feedback you would get from your friends and peers. Playing with a league will also allow you to compete in a higher stakes environment, which is a necessary fear to overcome before going pro.
Step 3: Join a junior academy
By taking part in local tournaments and practicing consistently, you can prove to your coaches that you have what it takes both mentally and physically. This may lead to membership in a junior academy, which prepares young players for competition at a professional and international level.
Junior academies are training programs designed and sponsored by professional teams for promising young rugby players. Note, however, that the option to join a junior academy only extends until you’re around 20 years old.
One important part of these academies is career development and academic training, which are generally viewed as safeguards against having limited career prospects if a player doesn’t make the grade.
Step 4: Join an amateur or semi-professional club
If you’re already past 20, then joining a junior club is no longer an option. The option for those who haven’t been able to join a junior club is to join either an amateur or semi-professional club.
You’ll need to keep an eye on your physical fitness and take part in local tournaments. By training consistently, you might get noticed at the lower levels and position yourself to be noticed by professional scouts.
Step 5: Rise up in the ranks
There’s no magic potion for becoming a professional athlete. It’s part passion, part luck, and part hard work. If you want to go pro, you have to get noticed. To get noticed, you have to be the best on the pitch. To be the best on the pitch, you have to train.
Scouts tend to look for individuals who show promising talent in the core skills of rugby. But they’re also looking for players who consistently perform well both on the pitch and off it. So, if you’re looking to get scouted, remember that it’s important not just to be a great player but also a well-rounded athlete.
A career as a professional rugby player requires hard work, determination, and a personality type that thrives under stressful and competitive situations. It’s also a career that places you in the limelight. This means that you should be prepared for a life under the constant eye of the public, and your team’s fans and the fans of rival teams alike.
Some important things to consider if you’re thinking about pursuing a career as a professional rugby player are:
- Do you live for physical fitness?
- Are you comfortable with the possibility of injury and bodily trauma?
- Do you thrive in high-stress situations?
As a final note, it’s good practice to consider creating a backup plan for early retirement. Professional athletes usually have short careers. Many go on to become coaches for professional or local teams and clubhouses. But while you may enjoy playing the game, you might not enjoy coaching it. In the same way that there are no specific jobs that lead to a career as a professional rugby player, there are no specific jobs for players after retirement.
Have you thought about becoming a professional rugby player? Let us know in the comments!
Originally published on September 7, 2014.