Daniel Vickerman’s death casts a dark shadow over the rugby world

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    The Waratahs huddle will look very different this weekend. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

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    Before play began, the players from the NSW Waratahs and the Western Force Super Rugby teams formed two circles to honour, with silence and bowed heads, the memory of Daniel Vickerman.

    The silence of the circle was broken as the players broke away to take their positions on the field. When the crowd clapped, their applause was for a man few of them knew but all of them admired.

    The silence on these occasions, I always think, is for us, the survivors. We try to make some sense out of an action that seems, in Daniel Vickerman’s case, to be beyond any meaning or understanding.

    The applause was for Daniel Vickerman. For ‘Vicks’, the tough, uncompromising enforcer who never flinched when the battle on the field got its toughest.

    He was a player of physical strength and strength of character who seemed to take it upon himself to try to lift his team when the game started to turn against them. He was inspirational to his teammates when inspiration was desperately needed.

    The crowd, it seemed to me, wanted to make one final acknowledgment of their pleasure they got from seeing his fearless and passionate play. And so they spontaneously broke out into that most generous of sounds, hands clapping in restrained but heart-felt unison.

    Over the course of the last week there have been thousands of words written by writers trying to come to terms with an event which shocked and surprised the rugby world and has forced it to start thinking hard about its implications for players and for the management of the game.

    Among the best of those words was Georgina Robinson’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald, titled “Vickerman’s ‘transition’ done better than most.”

    Robinson noted the irony that Vickerman “more than most of his peers across any professional sport, nailed the transition from elite athlete to regular human.”

    He studied at Cambridge in 2008, taking time out of his rugby career. And then when constant injuries forced his retirement, he seemed to make the difficult transition from professional athlete to businessman. “He spent the next four years carving out his career in the property and development industry … He had navigated those dark and choppy waters and appeared to be sailing along in perfect conditions.”

    Clearly, though, the transition was not made.

    Robinson quoted some interesting comments about the difficulty of transition for successful athletes from Greg Mumm, a former coach turned consultant, who was a friend of Vickerman’s: “What happens when the stadium lights are turned off on our careers and when the fans find someone new to cheer for? Does our training help or hinder us in preparation for life after sport.”

    These are very important questions. They go to the heart of the matter.

    If there is anything good that can come from Daniel Vickerman’s death it must be that the rugby authorities around the world have to start understanding that glory and some money are not enough compensation for the broken bones and (often) the mental trauma that the professional player experiences to establish and consolidate his career.

    We (and I include rugby writers like myself in all of this) have too often cherished the notion that the glory itself, transitory and difficult as it often is, is a just reward for attaining the highest performance levels of the game.

    Wallaby Dan Vickerman makes a half break but is tackled by Wales' Kevin Morgan

    A.E.Housman’s plangent poem, ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’, has beguiled us into accepting that the transitory fame achieved by a great player is somehow an ultimate reward, no matter what happens later to him in life.

    The time you won the race
    We chaired you through the market-place:
    Man and boy stood cheering by,
    And home we brought you shoulder-high …

    Smart lad, to slip betimes away
    From fields where glory does not stay,
    And early though the laurel grows
    It withers quicker than the rose.

    This Corinthian view of sport is a thing of the past, if it was ever a valid notion, anyway.

    If having a splendid rugby career is somehow a death sentence involving depression, drug-use or over-use of supplements like creatine, then it can’t be worth the blazing candle of fame.

    In the case of rugby, then, a sport that was only made professional in 1996, there is a great deal of work that needs to be done to make the game safer for the players, on and off the field.

    Two writers in New Zealand, Mark Reason and Phil Gifford (in my view the best writer on rugby in NZ), have provided some graphic details about how the legal food supplement creatine can create all sorts of health difficulties, short term and long term, if it is abused.

    Gifford reported on how the thoughtful All Black Mark Brewer believed that creatine had too many similarities with steroids for his liking, so he never used it even when it was widely used and over-used in the early days of professional rugby.

    Another player told Gifford that he developed massive thighs that caused a succession of hamstring problems for him until he stopped taking the dosages ordered by his team’s fitness trainer.

    According to Reason, the former All Black’s winger Joeli Vidiri’s life-threatening kidney issues “are almost certainly connected with creatine use.”

    The point here is that rugby officials must be ruthless with their annual check-ups on professionals and school-age players to ensure that they don’t compromise their health, short and long-term, in the pursuit of Housman’s laurel wreath of glory.


    There was an interesting story by the SMH’s Tom Decent – ‘Waratahs debutant Simone says the sacrifice and tough times worth it‘ – before the Waratahs-Force match that indicates the Australian authorities are starting to be on the ball in providing guidance for players who could be susceptible to depression.

    The Waratahs’ starting inside Simone told Decent how he turned his back on rugby league after becoming “disillusioned … admitting he suffered from depression in that period … It’s easy to put on a mask in front of someone else … but we can’t see what’s happening behind closed doors. That’s the dangerous thing.”

    Simone was given a chance to play rugby for the Norths side, where he starred in the team that won the Shute Shield after a 41-year drought. He became the NRC Player of the Year. And on Saturday night played at inside centre for the Waratahs in their tough victory over the Force.

    The opening round was somewhat disappointing for the Australian teams.

    The Rebels were overwhelmed by the Blues 56–18.

    The Reds scrapped through against the Sharks 28–26.

    The Brumbies were resilient but far too dour, except for one fantastic ensemble try, in going down to the Crusaders 17–13.

    Neither the Waratahs (19) nor the Western Force (13) showed much skill in their mistake-ridden clash. Will Skelton looked fit and powerful in his play. But Israel Folau, alarmingly, carried for only 11 metres in the first 70 minutes of play!

    A dejected Israel Folau of the Waratahs

    My match of the round was the Stormers-Bulls 37-24 clash at Newlands before a partisan, vocal crowd. Cheslin Kolbe, playing on the wing, showed that being the smallest player on the field was no impediment to him being the best back going around.

    The Stormers had a pack that demolished the Bulls in the scrums and backs who were prepared to launch break-outs, New Zealand-style, from inside their own 22.

    The great fly half and then commentator and broadcaster Cliff Morgan once noted that rugby is a “magnificent irrelevancy.”

    Life is the great relevancy. This is the message that should resonate in this week when the death of Daniel Vickerman cast its shadow over the first week of Super Rugby 2017.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (70)

    • February 27th 2017 @ 6:38am
      Baz said | February 27th 2017 @ 6:38am | ! Report

      So putting the emotion aside what do the actual teams do to ready players for retirement ?

      Are they forced to look at getting skills for after game time to enable them to work ?

      If not should become part of thier contracts.

      • February 27th 2017 @ 9:36am
        Paul said | February 27th 2017 @ 9:36am | ! Report

        Not really the point. There is no magic career after sport that will prevent depression. It’s more about ensuring there is awareness and discussion on it, so that issues can be identified and addressed early.

        It could also help athletes be more self aware of how large the challenge can be and how much serious effort they need to put into transition. That you don’t just “hang up your boots”. The article by GR linked above also talks about the way in which Liz Ellis worked towards retirement and how aware she was of the mental impact of it.

      • February 28th 2017 @ 3:55am
        Bakkies said | February 28th 2017 @ 3:55am | ! Report

        Well when Vickermann first broke it to the test side the players were already openly encouraged to complete some form of qualification. May have been compulsory in the ARU contracts in fact.

        As for the Super Rugby sides and even over in Europe you still hear players in their mid to late 20s saying they are not sure what they are going to do when they retire from pro Rugby

    • February 27th 2017 @ 6:52am
      DanFan said | February 27th 2017 @ 6:52am | ! Report

      While a lot of words have indeed been written about the tragedy surrounding Dan Vickerman’s passing, there has been very little focus on the real problem, and it is not just rugby or sport’s problem. The management and treatment of depression is the issue here. Rugby players and other sportspeople are becoming depressed not only at the end of their career but also during. This is also a problem throughout society and the focus should be on how we can improve the identification and treatment of this deadly disease.

      • February 27th 2017 @ 7:20am
        Jeff dustby said | February 27th 2017 @ 7:20am | ! Report

        Well said, a

        • March 1st 2017 @ 3:53am
          steved said | March 1st 2017 @ 3:53am | ! Report

          so true

    • Roar Guru

      February 27th 2017 @ 7:23am
      biltongbek said | February 27th 2017 @ 7:23am | ! Report

      I think it is very difficult to transition from a professional sportsman to regular Joe Soap.

      It is also different for every individual, some struggle with life long physical injuries, others with mental scars, bodies and minds that were pushed to their limits for a decade or more.

      Then there is also the psychological side of being part of the hype and adoration that follow many sport stars.

      Financial rewards may be there but how many really plan from the start to make that money mean something years down the line when the body says no more?

      Then one day it all stops, you wake up one morning and the realisation dawns upon you it is all over.

      Every aspect of your life changes, you become a full time dad, have to start a regular job, be a full time husband, the mundane never before crossed your mind.

      Must be hard.

    • February 27th 2017 @ 7:27am
      Onside said | February 27th 2017 @ 7:27am | ! Report

      What if the problem existed long before Dan Vickerman played rugby and increased success only masked the issue.

      • February 27th 2017 @ 10:10am
        northerner said | February 27th 2017 @ 10:10am | ! Report

        All the more reason to improve the systems for dealing with depression, both within the sports world and outside it.

        • February 28th 2017 @ 4:07am
          Gormon Kinchley said | February 28th 2017 @ 4:07am | ! Report

          Absolutely, Northerner, the context is irrelevant, depression should always be considered.

      • February 27th 2017 @ 9:19pm
        Ken Catchpole's Other Leg said | February 27th 2017 @ 9:19pm | ! Report

        A very good question, Onside.
        The truth is we do not know. We may never now. But professional rugby may have been as much a healing as retirement was a challenge.
        We do not know.
        We cannot be too quick to blame professional sport for this tragedy.

    • February 27th 2017 @ 7:29am
      grapeseed said | February 27th 2017 @ 7:29am | ! Report

      Correlating Dan’s alleged suicide to his professional sporting career, failure to transition etc is one of the dumbest things I have ever heard.

      Suicide is literally the cause of 25% of all deaths in Dan’s demographic. The incidence in sporting professionals is far lower than the rest of society (in the same demographic).

      To imagine that there is some special relationship between professional sport and depression (yes, yes, what happens once the glare of the stadium’s light goes out…) is to not understand how to interpret statistics.

      Sometimes I feel like I wake up each day and the world has got just a bit dumber.

      Sure – talk about depression, talk about suicide, talk about demography. But the rest is just correlational fantasy.

      • February 27th 2017 @ 8:34am
        bigbaz said | February 27th 2017 @ 8:34am | ! Report

        I agree , I believe pro sports people have better support and expectancies than the normal Joe Blow. Tragically,people from all walks of life suffer depression, this is not just a Rugby problem.

      • Roar Guru

        February 27th 2017 @ 8:52am
        Fionn said | February 27th 2017 @ 8:52am | ! Report

        So far as I am aware there is a strong correlation between multiple concussions and increased risk of depression and suicide.

        • February 27th 2017 @ 10:20am
          grapeseed said | February 27th 2017 @ 10:20am | ! Report

          I would be happy to have an honest discussion about the correlation of traumatic brain injury with depression, but this article was not that.

          This article is about the psychological impact of professional sports and, for some reason, creatine. This has in turn inspired speculation about a whole range of other issues (see “egg-timer theory” below).

          In serious matters, jumping straight to speculative conclusions is ill-advised.

          My point is that if we start to collectively hallucinate some sort of epidemic of depression and suicide in rugby, it ignores the facts and does a disservice to the farmers, police, emergency services, construction workers, and all of the other professions who are exponentially more likely to be victims in these matters.

          It is as pointless and as in poor a taste as if we were to speculate on whether Vickerman had been caught having an affair, was a closeted homosexual, had suffered child abuse, had gone bankrupt or any other unsubstantiated musing.

          Hence Spiro’s statement that “If there is anything good that can come from Daniel Vickerman’s death it must be that the rugby authorities around the world have to start understanding that glory and some money are not enough compensation for the broken bones and (often) the mental trauma that the professional player experiences to establish and consolidate his career” is emotive, unsubstantiated, speculative nonsense.

          • February 27th 2017 @ 11:48am
            Darwin Stubbie said | February 27th 2017 @ 11:48am | ! Report

            Well said ..

          • Roar Guru

            February 27th 2017 @ 12:31pm
            Diggercane said | February 27th 2017 @ 12:31pm | ! Report

            Very well said Grapeseed.

          • February 27th 2017 @ 2:10pm
            Rugbyfan101 said | February 27th 2017 @ 2:10pm | ! Report

            Agreed. Well put

          • February 27th 2017 @ 8:02pm
            Rhys Bosley said | February 27th 2017 @ 8:02pm | ! Report

            Totally agree Grapeseed. I frankly find the way some hack with a pop psychological theory feels the need to have a piece of this sad story distasteful. And combining it with comment on the latest Super Rugby round doesn’t treat the topic with any respect. Try interviewing an expert for a change Spiro, or even get one to write the article, your contribution is borish in the extreme.

          • February 27th 2017 @ 9:36pm
            c said | February 27th 2017 @ 9:36pm | ! Report

            so when is the right time for that discussion grapeseed as you’re getting a lot of love

      • Roar Guru

        February 27th 2017 @ 11:35am
        Atawhai Drive said | February 27th 2017 @ 11:35am | ! Report

        Why “alleged”, grapeseed? Sadly Dan Vickerman’s suicide is a fact, not an allegation.

        • February 27th 2017 @ 11:53am
          grapeseed said | February 27th 2017 @ 11:53am | ! Report

          Sorry mate, I hadn’t read that, I am bouncing on and off grid at the moment.

          Do you have a link to the confirmation, a quick Google search didn’t bring up anything.

          If it has been confirmed, I wonder why the word wasn’t mentioned once in the article, the first time was probably by me. Ironic that an article seeking to cast light on the issue dances around it euphemistically.

          • February 27th 2017 @ 3:47pm
            Charlie Turner said | February 27th 2017 @ 3:47pm | ! Report

            Grapeseed, your comments above are the most sensible and respectful I have read regarding Vic’s tragic passing. Well done!

          • February 27th 2017 @ 4:04pm
            Tahman said | February 27th 2017 @ 4:04pm | ! Report

            Grapeseed I agree with everything you have said, but it is Fact, not presumed.

          • February 27th 2017 @ 6:57pm
            Pinetree said | February 27th 2017 @ 6:57pm | ! Report

            Agree entirely with what you said Grapeseed. I have known 2 men that have committed suicide, and I would not be surprised if most people know someone who has taken their own life.

            I find it bizarre that nobody can even mention the word suicide in the media. It is as if the word itself is feared and is believed to have a ripple effect for others to do the same. People die of overdoses and drunk driving, and the media have no worries mentioning that.

            Surely the problem can not even start to be addressed if no one can even speak the word, Apparently it is alright to talk about a celebrities death in an overdose so we can talk about it and become more aware of the dangers through discussion, but no one cares enough about suicide in the main steam media and just sweeps it under the carpet.

            Maybe I’m am being a bit harsh, but it is already a huge problem, so when can we actually start discussing the topic outside closed doors?

      • February 27th 2017 @ 4:01pm
        Tahman said | February 27th 2017 @ 4:01pm | ! Report

        I agree 100% grapeseed. Being a professional athlete was just a byline to the whole sad situation.

        What is the scapegoat when regular Joe Blow who never played a sport on their lives has depression.

        How many of these athletes had depression before they even played elite sport.

        Playing elite sport may even just mask their problem

    • February 27th 2017 @ 7:33am
      Leftarc said | February 27th 2017 @ 7:33am | ! Report

      There was a mistake in your opening sentence:
      Before play began, the players from the ACT Brumbies and the Canterbury Crusaders Super Rugby teams formed two circles to honour, with silence and bowed heads, the memory of Daniel Vickerman.

      • Columnist

        February 27th 2017 @ 9:37am
        Spiro Zavos said | February 27th 2017 @ 9:37am | ! Report

        Leftarc, just look at the photo at the top of the article to see the circles I was writing about.

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