Ben Atiga: Former All Black helping Scotland's rugby players with mental health

Ben Atiga in action for Auckland Blues
Ben Atiga spent the majority of his career with the Blues of Auckland in his native New Zealand

Some are terrified to make a phone call. One kept failing a UK citizenship test and was on the verge of being forced to leave the country. Others isolate themselves from the outside world when training is over.

Fear is not an emotion easily associated with professional rugby players, but Ben Atiga knows appearances can be deceptive.

A former All Black whose doubts once grew so oppressive that he gave up the game, he is at the forefront of Rugby For Life, Scottish Rugby's package of mental health support.

The governing body launched the programme last year - its goal to help players stay healthy, educate themselves and foster interests and careers outside of the game.

"Players doubt themselves in doing the smallest things - as simple as speaking to someone in a suit. Believe it or not, that to a player can be terrifying," Atiga says.

"You recognise them as players, but when they take that uniform off, who are they? That's a really hard question for them to answer."

'I isolated myself from players, rugby, even family'

Atiga remembers what it was like to be a professional petrified to set foot on the field. He was 25, an All Black and captain of Auckland when his anxieties peaked.

"I remember sitting on the bus on the way to Eden Park with my headphones on," he says. "All I could think about was, 'I can't wait 'til the end of the game'."

He knows now he was quite possibly suffering from depression.

As a brilliant young full-back and under-21 world player of the year, Atiga had been thrust into the spotlight in a country where rugby is religion and the pressure to deliver monumental.

Aged just 20, he was selected ahead of national hero Christian Cullen. He won a solitary cap before being felled by injuries and expectation.

Atiga stepped away from the sport, but he knows that, by leaving it behind, he wasn't confronting his problems - he was running away from them.

"I isolated myself from players, from rugby, even from my family," he recalls, 10 years on. "I lacked energy, I put on a lot of weight - I went up to 122kg from about 99kg.

"It's important players to realise you could be at the top of the game, the best full-back in the world, and wake up and decide, I don't feel like playing anymore."

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'What are you going to get up on Monday for?'

Atiga did get back into rugby and the Auckland team, then moved to Edinburgh in 2012, where chronic knee and hip problems forced his retirement four years ago.

He remains in the city, using his own tribulations to nurture Scotland's contracted players, from the academy intake to the heavyweights of the national team.

Sessions so far have covered communication skills, how to network and exploit their profile as professional rugby players, and changing a car tyre.

Academy players are contractually obliged to study or undertake some form of sustained work experience.

"You could be an 18-year-old kid that comes out of school and into pro rugby. You can be 35 when you come out but still be that 18-year-old kid if you've done nothing," Atiga warns.

"It's important to players to find something that's meaningful. What makes them happy? What are they going to get up on Monday for?

"If we can give them the head start, we'll see more players transition more confidently out of the game - and we'll start creating some better men and better women."

'Coming to a city environment can be daunting'

Pacific Rugby Welfare tweet
Atiga helps organise regular meetings for Scotland's Pacific Islands players

The half-Samoan and half-Tongan Atiga also helps new signings at Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh settle in Scotland.

For most, the transition is straightforward. But, in some cases, adapting to a new city, climate and way of life can be a wrench.

"Coming from a place that might only have two sets of traffic lights to a city, a diverse culture can be daunting," he says.

"We had a case where a player was trying to pass a Life in the UK Test [required for anyone seeking indefinite leave to remain in the UK or naturalisation as a British citizen]. He had about 10 days before his visa expired, but he kept failing and he was laughing about it."

Atiga had to intervene, telling the other players to encourage their team-mate rather than joke with him about it - and he passed with days to spare.

"He went home and did the work - the players helped him - and they were able to understand this is how the Pacific Islanders can respond to adversity," he adds. "It's about learning about each other's culture."

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