Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Education


The rise to professionalisation in 1995, and the increasing globalisation of rugby has changed the way the sport is viewed and engaged in by talented young athletes. The shift to a more professional work environment, high salaries, and the increased opportunity for young men who, once they leave school, and sometimes before, to seek employment in this workforce, has altered the way young players look, think and behave. With the shift to professionalism, the situation for young elite rugby players has become critical. Many view rugby as a career option, sacrificing education and training in pursuit of lucrative contracts, unaware of the realities of the occupation in which a relatively high number of players ‘don’t make it’. Those young players who are unsuccessful in their pursuit of a rugby career are often left directionless with no education or training in an alternative occupation or profession. In elite sport, retirement can be extremely difficult to cope with if athletes are not adequately prepared, or have not planned for such an event. This lack of preparation can leave athletes vulnerable to the challenges of retirement. The need for knowledge in this study relates to how young elite rugby players make sense of rugby as work, how they understand themselves as athletes, and how they make sense of their opportunities for a life outside rugby. The opportunities, barriers and needs for career development, planning and education to prepare young athletes for a life outside elite rugby and the ways these young men negotiate their lives and their alternatives are largely unknown. This thesis examines the experiences of young men who are part of the first generation of players who will only experience rugby in its professional format, and provides them with a voice as they pursue work as professional rugby players. More specifically, this study explores issues such as rugby as an occupational choice for young men, how players perceive, and are subsequently prepared for, a life outside rugby, their identification with the sport, and their needs and concerns as elite young rugby players. To gain a further understanding of the resources and opportunities available to assist in the development of these young men and their preparation for a life outside rugby, the study also explores coaches’ and managements’ perspectives and the ways in which they approach these relatively new issues facing young athletes. Investigation in this area of young athletes’ experience has been limited, with the majority of research v focusing on recently retired athletes, or those more established in their professional sport career, as opposed to those beginning to embark on, or pursuing a career in professional sport. There has been little research into the career experiences of elite young rugby players as a basis of understanding how best to prepare them for their future experiences both during, and post-elite athletic performance. The study employed a largely qualitative methodology, interviewing twenty-five young elite rugby players (18-22 years of age) in New Zealand and New South Wales, and eight coaching and management staff from rugby union and the wider sports industry. The use of semi-structured in-depth interviews enabled a rich understanding of the experiences of elite young rugby players from the perspectives of the players, coaches and management. A mixed mode approach was used to a limited extent, where additional quantitative data was collected through the use of a questionnaires provided to one group of participants. The main themes that emerged from this inquiry formed key considerations for the preparation of elite young rugby players in their future beyond rugby. These considerations highlighted the career development needs, barriers, opportunities and experiences of elite young rugby players as they pursued a career in professional rugby. Among others, the analysis of interviews identified an identity heavily invested in rugby, unrealistic predictions of their future rugby life cycle, the structure of the work, and support from their clubs and academies as key inhibitors to players career development and post-rugby planning. The study revealed that the involvement in elite rugby largely does not facilitate the accomplishment of developmental tasks that athletes require later in life. In many cases these young men are sacrificing the potential breadth of their future selves in the pursuit of a rugby career. Thus, the study points to the need for a greater focus in the support, assistance and resources for young elite rugby players in their career development and planning for their post-rugby future. These young men are in many cases at risk of having no tangible entry into an occupation or career should they not succeed in professional rugby.