In just a few hours’ time, Lachlan McCaffrey and the Brumbies will take the field for their first Super Rugby match of the 2019 season, against the Melbourne Rebels.
The weeks and weeks, hours and hours, of pre-season will ensure that McCaffrey and his 22 teammates are all in peak physical condition for the attrition that is professional Rugby. But just as importantly, the Brumbies have given themselves every opportunity to ensure that their mental fitness is also ridgy-didge.
“All professional athletes have to be super fit, it’s our full-time job and we train every day, but the thing we don’t always train for is that emotional and mental toll that the game takes on your mind throughout your career,” McCaffrey explains to RUPA.
“People think being a Rugby player is a great job, which it is and we’re very grateful to do what we love, but they don’t necessarily realise some of the challenges we have to put up with either; injuries, being off contract and not knowing what your future is for you and your family, the pressure of playing on the big stage, and then there’s also retiring.
“A lot of players struggle to transition (into their next career) after Rugby. You invest so much time and energy into trying to succeed on the Rugby field that sometimes it is hard to find the balance into preparing for life after Rugby. With timing, you never know what’s going to happen in Rugby and emotionally that toll is huge, and there are a lot of hardships involved in the profession.
“With all that in mind, if we can create a Rugby community which supports one another in the good but also the bad times and promotes mental wellness, we’ll all be better for it.”
And so it was that this pre-season, 45 members of the Brumbies’ playing and football staff headed to the Snowy Mountains together with the intention of investing in that space.
McCaffrey is an Ambassador for The Fly Program, an organisation designed to provide the resources to assist Australian men to find a release and increase their quality of life, using Fly Fishing as the conduit. As the nation battles with a suicide epidemic and increasing numbers of people identify as mental health sufferers, The Fly Program focuses upon participation in the natural world as a reprieve from the day-to-day challenges too many men face in our community.
“Three years ago, when I first started getting involved with The Fly Program, I was a bit ignorant to it all and didn’t realise how important mental wellness is,” McCaffrey explains. “The more I have gotten involved, the more I understand its’ importance.
“I knew the founder Matt Tripet, and when he started the charity in 2013 (after his brother-in-law committed suicide) I was playing overseas, and I was basically just a mate supporting him from afar. When I decided to move back and play for the Brumbies, he reached out about being involved as an Ambassador, and since then my involvement has just grown.
“I run a few of the programs myself as an active mentor for participants on the camps, and I also represent the program around Canberra as a networking Ambassador in the business world, trying to get financial backing from corporate supporters. I try and be as hands-on with the camps and the men within the program as possible, which is obviously quite hard with the training schedule I have at the Brumbies, but (Brumbies Head Coach) Dan McKellar really couldn’t be more supportive of the things I do away from Rugby, especially The Fly Program.”
Click here to read this week’s edition of the Taylors Wines Top 5, five hand-picked interviews with Australia’s players in the press compiled in one easy location.
After a 2018 season which saw the Brumbies narrowly miss finals but finish the year playing some of the best Rugby of any team in the competition, looking for competitive edges to improve in 2019 became a focus of attention. McCaffrey, as a member of the Club’s Leadership Group, sensed an opportunity to combine two of his passions.
“One thing I was big on was getting to know each other a bit better and connecting more to be more of a family instead of blokes who turn up, train, play Rugby and then go home,” he says.
“We did an Army camp in 2018, and I’ve done lots of those over my career and I have a huge amount of respect for them and what people do in the Army, but at the end of the day I just didn’t see the logic behind being flogged in pre-season for ten weeks and then doing a three-day Army camp where you flog yourself all over again.
“So after the Leadership Group endorsed it, I sat down with Dan (McKellar) at the end of last year and asked him to look into our team taking on The Fly Program, about creating connections and a bit of a brotherhood in a really relaxed environment at the end of pre-season. Dan was really receptive to the idea, as he normally is with players’ input, and we locked in three days in the Snowy Mountains leading into the first trial matches and the start of the season.
“Honestly, it couldn’t have gone better. Although it’s easier than an Army camp physically, it does challenge you in different ways emotionally and physically, and there were a lot of guys who have never really camped out and been in that environment and they felt quite vulnerable out there.
“Every single player, although uncomfortable and quite emotional at times, bought in and got involved and that blew everybody away. It was a complete 100% buy-in from all the players and staff, from an 18-year-old to a 38-year-old. I have never been part of a group at The Fly Program where we have been tighter to be honest.
“Sometimes in groups of that size you’ll get the same people talking a lot and the same guys sitting back and not partaking as much. That just didn’t happen at all. I’ve played professional Rugby for around a decade, and you make some unbelievable mates in Rugby, but you usually have a few blokes in your squad who you wouldn’t know much about and the best thing about this camp is that we left knowing a lot about every single person in the group.”
Want to know more about the Brumbies’ camp? Check out this article from the Canberra Times last month, where Chris Dutton spoke to Dan McKellar about the experience.
Charity work for McCaffrey doesn’t end with The Fly Program, as he also plays a very active role in a completely different type of charity. Youth In Union was established by McCaffrey and former Melbourne Rebels and Tongan international prop Eddie Aholelei, with the aim of assisting youth in the Pacific Islands by providing sports equipment and Rugby coaching.
“I played with Eddie in the UK and he used to share with me what he was trying to achieve, and I just slowly got more and more involved,” he says. “Eddie’s passion is his greatest strength, but a lot of the expenses were coming out of our own pockets in terms of travel and shipping, and that’s just not how charities work long-term, so I sat down with some people in Canberra and we set it up and registered it as a charity.
“We are trying to do things properly even though it is a small and young organisation, and long-term we think that there are a lot of opportunities there to do more with it. We have involved lots of great people in the Rugby community and managed to pick up some great sponsors in DHL and Storage King.
“We did a trip last year to Tonga, and we took about 45 boxes of gear over and visited about 15 schools and Clubs. We did a lot of coaching and it really just blew me away how beautiful and happy these young kids were with absolutely nothing, compared to how good a lot of kids have life over here. It’s blown me away how quickly it has grown in the last twelve months and the next step is going over again this year at some point to do a camp in Tonga and Samoa. We’d like to take some of our sponsors with us, show them what they’re supporting, and they can see these countries for how beautiful they are.
“All of the Brumbies boys have gotten really involved in terms of supporting us with kit and boots, as well as lots of the players from the other Super Rugby teams and even guys playing over in Europe. To see the smiles on people’s faces when we give them this gear is unbelievable. Any Rugby players who would like to get involved and come on the trip this year, we’d love to chat to them about it. The Rugby community is a pretty special family to be a part of and there’s always somebody willing and keen to help.”
Click here to watch a video about Youth In Union, and the great work that they do.
To the football field, and tonight will see McCaffrey start alongside David Pocock and Rob Valetini in the Brumbies’ back row, with Wallaby Pete Samu on the bench waiting to be injected for his Club debut. The depth at the Brumbies has plenty tipping them for a successful season, and McCaffrey appreciates that a guaranteed spot in the side may not be an easy thing to secure; not that he’s complaining.
“It’s actually a really good spot for the coaches to be in, and I think that they’ve done a great job recruitment-wise, not just in the back row with Pete Samu but across the whole team where there’s a huge amount of depth in every position,” he says.
“We are fortunate in Australia to have a lot of good back rowers, and the Brumbies have always had a strong back row, so I guess my feeling is that if I get a lot of game time at this Club then my Rugby is in a good spot. All I can do is my best and work hard and try and show my point of difference with a bit of game smartness and experience, and hopefully push for a big season. I know it’s a tough job, we have some good dynamic ball carriers in Pete and Robbie, and then Poey and Cusack who work their ass off every opportunity they get. Whoever gets picked every week, it’s going to be a pretty good back row.”
McCaffrey works with RUPA as one of the Brumbies’ Player Delegates, introduced three years ago to support the RUPA Player Director from each Club who serves on the Board; in the Brumbies’ case, Scott Sio.
“I think it is huge that players have a voice in the direction of the game. I know it is hard for Scott at times with his busy schedule with both the Brumbies and Wallabies, so that’s where as a Player Delegate I can help be a conduit. It’s obviously a fairly tough time in Australian Rugby right now, and players need to contribute and always be on the ball when decisions are being made.
“I think the more players can have an input and a voice, the more we can help the RUPA office in getting things done.
“For me personally, I will also be forever indebted to RUPA for helping me gain my degree (McCaffrey completed a Bachelor of Business through Swinburne University of Technology in 2014, accessing RUPA Training & Education Grants along the way).
“I don’t think that there are many sports anywhere else in the world where you have a Players’ Association that funds your Uni degree, and I know a lot of people my age who have huge study debts, but I was lucky enough to pass my courses and get that assistance. “From the day I left school and turned up at the NSW Waratahs Academy, (then RUPA Player Development Manager) Lachlan McBain pushed me to think of life away from Rugby and do some study.
“That’s why I want to try and give back now to RUPA and help to motivate the younger guys here to have something away from Rugby that they can tick away at. I know the support is there at RUPA, and that there are a lot of current and past players who are very appreciative of what RUPA has done for them.”
This RUPA big Read was brought to you by the SCG Trust, RUPA’s official Stadium Partners. Find out what’s on at the Sydney Cricket Ground and buy your tickets for sporting events, including three NSW Waratahs 2019 Super Rugby matches, here.