On blowing away stereotypes, navigating through my first (injury-enforced) retirement and taking to the ocean.
Watching the FIFA World Cup blew me away in a couple of ways. Firstly, it broke down some major stereotypes and concerns that millions, if not billions, of people had about Russia and the Russian people. And closer to home, having missed out on playing in a rugby sevens world cup in Moscow five years ago, and then also the Olympics through injury, it brought flooding back memories of calling time on my professional career.
Seeing players like Tim Cahill of Australia or Russia’s Sergey Ignashevich still out there playing on soccer’s biggest stage at 38 was remarkable. Hearing the commentators talking about their ‘career twilights’ got me thinking back to my own retirement and all of the thoughts and doubts it brought.
Retiring from professional sport is a difficult time and something that I and all of my rugby-playing pals have or will have to go through at some stage.
Obviously there’s an inevitability about it and you only hope when you’re still playing that the decision can be yours, as it was with Joe Marler recently, and not a doctor’s.
I was lucky in that I had a long and very fulfilling career, playing 15s for clubs in two countries and sevens for England literally all around the world, but eventually you’re left with the cold realisation that the clock is ticking and a new chapter is looming. And that’s when you start to realise what your sport has meant to you, how it’s come to define you and how big the void is that it leaves. That void is made up of many different things: time, mental energy, physical discipline, teamwork, stress, elation, camaraderie and income to name but a few. So you ask yourself how you move on, where your next challenge is coming from.
For me the Clipper Round the World Race, which recently reached its climax for a 10th time, presented itself as a huge opportunity to jump totally outside of my rugby comfort zone, do something amazing, meet new people and finally escape James Haskell!
I first learnt about the Clipper race when I met the founder of the business Sir Robin Knox-Johnson at the London 7s. Sir Robin is an avid rugby fan and delights in all of the game’s many pleasures, none more so than telling me how good Irish rugby is in comparison to English… He’s not far wrong at the moment, but don’t tell him I said that! He had told me about the Clipper Race and how it was one of the last adventures left on the planet and that anyone could do it.
“More people have submitted Everest than have sailed around the world,” he would often delight in telling me.
He mentioned that if I ever wanted to do it, I should give him a call and he would try to make it happen. Injury had hit and my future was uncertain on a rugby field and so I thought ‘Why not?’
So to cut a long story short, I did my research, signed up and went through several stages in the build-up: from extreme anxiety, nausea and sleepless nights to a feeling of sheer and utter excitement once I’d met the rest of the team, to the point where I was a nightmare to live with. And joining that Great Britain team is one of the best decisions I ever made.
Standing as captain behind your try line at Twickenham, a score down with a minute to play and your teammates looking to you for inspiration is tough. But it’s nothing compared with being out on the southern ocean in a 70-foot yacht, being tossed around by 120-foot waves, and looking across at the rest of the crew, wondering how you’re going to get through it together, and then working through it to literally steady the ship, stay the course, keep going and pass a pod of 40 whales not long afterwards who seemed to warmly congratulate us.
You learn a lot out there about the people you’re with and the team you’re in but you learn just as much about yourself, and those 40,000 miles of open water took me on a massive journey of emotional and mental endurance. I was hugely proud to become second-in-command on the Team Great Britain boat and drew so much strength and learnt so many lessons that I brought home with me.
To this day, five years on, that 11-month sea voyage is still the most life-changing time of all my challenges and the one that I use most as a mental compass point as I navigate my way now. It’s also helped me plan all the rest of my team challenges since then to make sure that everyone who comes out with me has the best time and gets the most possible out of each and every trip.