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Life after rugby league

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George Riley George Riley | 08:36 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011

The retirement of former Australia Test centre Phil Bailey once again reminded us that a career in professional sport can be a fragile one. The 30-year-old was forced to quit because of an Achilles injury, having joined Super League side Salford from Wigan in the close season.

Life changes quickly when age or injury catches up with a sportsman. Unlike top footballers, rugby league players don't have financial security once their playing careers end. The average salary for a top rugby league player bears no comparison to that of a Premier League footballer, who can earn millions. That means fear and uncertainty for some rugby league players when retirement day comes.

To get an idea of the challenges some face when the body says no more, I spoke to three former Super League stars who have moved in very different directions since their careers finished.

Mike Bennett won every honour with St Helens before his shock retirement in 2008 at 28. His retirement came after two shoulder reconstructions in 18 months. A third was too much. He is now an A-level and GCSE chemistry teacher at Cowley International College, where the Saints team train. He watches them from his laboratory.

"The specialist told me that keeping the shoulder together was like tying a knot in an elastic band," said Bennett. "I'd just got married and we'd had our first kid. I panicked when I realised it was over."

Like several of today's players, Bennett had a safety net. "I made sure I finished my Chemistry degree at Liverpool," he said. "I was in my last year when I broke into the Saints team in 2000. Having my degree gave me a head start but I was still scared at never having had a proper job."

Bennett's change of career was prompted by former Saints coach Daniel Anderson, himself an ex-maths teacher. "Daniel asked me what I wanted to do," said Bennett. "I said I wanted to stay in rugby and coach. He told me to do something with the kids first and to get myself a proper career because sport is fickle."

Mike BennettMike Bennett in full flight for St Helens. Photo: Getty Images

While Bennett swapped big hits for bunsen burners, Jamie Bloem has gone in an equally unexpected direction. The former Castleford, Halifax and Huddersfield player, who also runs a landscaping business, is bidding to become the first Super League player to make the transition to top-flight referee. Known for a fiery temperament and his fondness for chatting back to officials, it is the classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper.

I got to know Bloem a few years ago when we worked together for BBC Radio Leeds. Bizarrely, it was one of our commentaries that prompted his unwitting career change.
"We were commentating on a game at Saints," recalled Bloem. "The ref was having a shocker so I said on air that anyone could do a better job, even me. The next week, Stuart Cummings, the head of referees, rang me and said if I thought I could do better then I should have a go. He told me no players become refs, so I should be the first."

Bloem took the courses, the exams and started refereeing amateur games. He now admits his attitude towards officials was wrong. "It is a lot harder than you think because you have to make split-second decisions," said the former South Africa international. "I'd have behaved differently towards referees if I knew what I do now. The main problem was dissent. A ref needs to be strong but not cocky and have fun with the players."

Bloem, 39, is currently a Grade 2 touch judge at Championship level. He hopes to reach Grade 1 within a year and run the line in Super League. The next step would be to rise up the refereeing ladder. There is no age limit for referees but they must prove their fitness. Bloem says he is "a lot fitter than most of the younger refs out there".

What chance more players becoming referees? And not just in rugby league? Football referees are often criticised for not understanding the nuances of a game they have never played.

"I think the Rugby Football League want more players to become refs but at the moment the job is not that appealing," said Bloem. "I couldn't imagine Kevin Sinfield wanting to go to Wakefield or Huddersfield College on a Wednesday night."

One of Bloem's more colourful gigs to date saw him referee a Nordic Cup match between Sweden and Norway in Gothernburg. "I got there three hours before kick-off and there were no lines marked on the pitch. Me and the two sets of players had to mark them out using 200m long ropes and paint. This is as grass roots as it gets."

Bennett started thinking about life after rugby league from an early stage in his career. Bloem only began to think along the same lines towards the end of his. So do enough players plan for the future?

"Players may have a plan but it's not necessarily that well formed," said former Castleford, Wakefield and Harlequins winger Jon Wells, who hung up his boots at the end of 2009. "If a player suddenly retires early, he has to develop that plan a lot more quickly. Professional rugby is a very social and inclusive occupation. You mix with 30-40 people every day of your working life, so to go from that to nothing is a massive shock."

Not quite as big as the shock Wells, still only 32, will have in May, when he opens the doors of a family guesthouse in Harrogate. "I wouldn't have thought 10 years ago that I'd end up doing a bit of commentating and frying eggs the rest of the week," he told me. "I'd like it on record that I don't expect to retire in charge of a B&B!"

Wells, who played almost 300 Super League games, will run the 10-bedroom establishment with wife Lyndsay. He will combine a blossoming media career with stints in the kitchen frying up a full English for guests. "This is my main source of income, time and stress but it allows me to carry on with my rugby at the weekend," said Wells. "Best of all, I can just point to it and tell me mates that I have a mansion!"

It is all very different from life as a rugby league player, as Bennett acknowledges. "When I look out of my lab and see the Saints boys training, I see my old life from my new life," he said. "It's very weird."

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