Life after Rugby: Damian Hopley

Date published: December 13 2017

Our series continues as we look back at the lasting memories a rugby player has and what has followed since. Up next, it’s Damian Hopley.

Once an electric centre in the colours of England and Wasps, only injury prevented Hopley from leaving his mark on the international stage.

However, it was after his enforced retirement that Hopley’s business acumen and intellect allowed him to leave an indelible footprint on the professional game, as he went on to conceive and deliver one of the world’s first Players’ Unions in Rugby, The Rugby Players’ Association, or RPA.

Nobody is more qualified to discuss life after rugby than the former Wasp, and it was his own experiences that framed the need for a joined up voice from the players:

Changing Times

“When you’re 25 and you’re picked to play for England in 1995, you don’t think twice about signing on the dotted line of the then arduous RFU Players Contract,” he explained.

“It was a contract loaded with disclaimers, clauses, get-outs and much more, but when you’re that age, you believe yourself invincible, unbreakable and it’s only when the inevitable happens, that you realise just how fragile a career as a professional is.

“It was a brutal wake-up call for me; effectively I wrecked my knee in the Hong Kong 7s in 1996 and when I looked for the support I expected from the RFU for representing, indeed skippering my country, none was to be seen. I was dropped like a stone and the pace with which I was jettisoned was devastating,” said Hopley.

“There was an aftermath of comeback, hope, hanging on in quiet desperation for a career I’d mapped but was not to be, and that left me frustrated and perhaps angry, at the lack of infrastructure for injured players in the rapidly changing of the emerging professional game.

“That period was defined by change, flux and power struggles. There were land grabs everywhere as investors, teams and players jostled for their position in the new era. It was both fascinating and chastening to see the battles for supremacy, none more so at my club Wasps, where a core of senior players upped sticks and travelled up to Newcastle to start effectively a new club.

“But change is, by definition, a catalyst; it creates opportunity and openings, and I was inspired to set up an organisation that would provide the necessary support and protection akin to those offered by the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA).

“A big step for me was meeting Richard Bevan, then CEO of the PCA; Richard was open, enthused and helped me understand his operation.

“At this moment there was so much going on in rugby so I gathered a few of the good and great team-mates from the game including Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Ben Clarke and Phil de Glanville who all saw the niche in the market and the message that came through loud and clear was ‘You do it, we’ll support you.’ So, in short, I did it!,” reminisced the former England centre.

Fulham and the Fax Machine

With little infrastructure existing in the fledgling professional game, a clean piece of paper existed. Hopley had big ideas but no budget, and as with all these things, baby steps led to giant leaps as both the market and the press conspired to create a platform for his vision:

“It was the days of a fax machine and a front room in Fulham!” chuckled Hopley.

“That really was it. I got my soapbox out, jumped in the car and went selling the idea to the clubs. It was a high risk play but I believed passionately about the cause and even if it came to nothing, I knew that I had given it my best shot and that I would get invaluable business start-up experience along the way.

“It was clear I needed an ‘offering’ to get player buy in for their £100 annual membership fee, so the first iteration was a simple legal expenses policy which cost approximately £80 per player, leaving a net income to run the business of £7,000, which was a pittance. The product proved inspired given the financial crashes of clubs like Richmond and West Hartlepool as clubs jostled for a sustainable business model.

“A clear turning point was the Lawrence Dallaglio News of the World scandal in 1999. Lawrence was mortified at the cheap sting and we worked with him to provide legal and general support. The entire affair proved the necessity and worth of a Players’ Association in helping out all players, including the then England captain.

“As a start up, we had no funding apart from the players’ subs but as our influence and support grew, we sought formal recognition and investment into project based funding from the RFU and The Clubs to provide the players with mandatory support around insurance, contract advice and welfare.

“The two main movers and shakers at that time were Francis Baron and the late Tom Walkinshaw, who were no shrinking violets to deal with but all the stakeholders recognised the worth of a well organised and supportive Players’ Union,” said Hopley.

Growing Up

“The key point in this start-up was the abstinence to keep going and not fold when there were so many barriers to success. With a small team of four from year two, we were extremely pragmatic in our development and cut our cloth according to the support we received.

“Good businesses grow organically. With the assistance of outstanding Non-Executive Directors, we started to create boilerplates of good professional practice such as standard contracts, agent recommendations, welfare programmes influence and so on and so the scope grew as we acted as the voice that joined all parties up in the English rugby industry.

“With the other stakeholder groups we had created a framework to make England an outstanding place to play professional rugby, and it’s no coincidence that overseas players still flock to play here and our best players want to stay here to represent both club and country.

“Now we’re past our adolescence, managing the significant change on the playing field has become a huge challenge.

“It’s a sobering fact that 36 percent of a player’s career is spent in injury recovery. It’s telling that in every club in the country, two players will retire per season.

“Those players live in an institutionalised bubble; an isolated team environment where everything is planned and mapped out. When that support goes, it’s inevitable that the players lose their sense of self worth and focus,” Hopley explained.

RPA Today

“Today is all about how our team works to advise and support the players and their personal development both during and after their careers. The two years after retirement are the hardest and players often struggle to retain their self-esteem and sense of belonging if they’ve not invested time into planning for life after rugby,” observed the Wasp.

“Players listen to players and our team of eight Personal Development Managers work directly at each of the 16 teams we represent to get the message out – it is never too early to invest into your futures. Every single player has sufficient time to explore passions away from the game and we are extremely fortunate to have a number of role models who have made significant strides in both education and commerce to show that these opportunities exist.

“The better clubs work closely with the RPA to provide scheduled time for Development sessions in the weeks and thus become more attractive employers to ambitious players. In so doing, they are helping their players be better prepared for when they have to retire due to injury or at the end of their careers, which is a significant step in the right direction.

“We also believe the transition period provides some plenty of opportunity for our members, so it’s important to reframe the much talked about doom and gloom that can accompany the end of a career.

“The irony is that the injury that devastated me and my playing career inspired me to do something far more important for the game I love. The one thing is for sure, there is life after rugby and it can incredibly satisfying and a lot of fun!”

Damian Hopley CEO of the RPA is a graduate of St Andrews and Cambridge University. An electric centre, Damian played for Wasps and England, and was part of England’s World Cup-winning 7s team in 1993, before being forced to retire from professional rugby in 1998 after a series of knee operations. The lack of support available to professional players at that time led Hopley to found the RPA later that same year. The RPA is now the representative body and collective voice of more than 1,200 current and former professional rugby players in England, and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2018.

Follow Damian and the RPA on Twitter:

The RPA launched the mental health campaign ‘Lift the Weight’ in February and are currently working on the next phase of the campaign for 2018. 

by James While