Life after Rugby: Joe Roff

Date published: October 12 2017

Our new series continues as we look back at the lasting memories a rugby player has and what has followed since. Up next, it is Joe Roff.

The blue blazer, annual varsity contests and the most respectfully competitive rivalry in education breeds a culture of its own.

One that Australian Rugby World Cup winner Roff wholeheartedly immersed himself in during his two years reading philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University.

Although he failed to add a varsity game win to his glittering CV, Roff looks back on his time at one of England’s most renowned universities with immense pride and says an idea that was once “a dream” then became a “stepping stone into post rugby life.”

Despite the soaring cost of further education in the British Isles, Roff echoed what a Oxford predecessor once said in that “it’s expensive but an Oxford education repays itself for the rest of your life”. Few leaving the highly esteemed establishment fail to further their lives regardless of the field they choose to go into.

The boat race between Oxford and Cambridge is among the highlights of the British sporting calendar, but despite Roff’s location being some hours ahead he takes as keen an interest as any in his alma mater.

At a wedding he recently attended, in a lighthearted debate with a former Cambridge pupil and friend, Roff recalled an exchange where loyalties still remain thick with both parties.

“We’re 22,000 miles away from England arguing over which is the better university. But it’s a very good spirited debate and it creates tribalism that provides energy to those who look to stay linked to Oxford or Cambridge. I very proudly still hang my dark blue blazer in the cupboard.”

Roff, in his current role as CEO with the John James Foundation, is certainly sidestepping the notion of colours, jerseys and allegiances as he looks to play his part in a philanthropic organisation that oozes solidarity by undertaking a range of programs both in Canberra and away from Australia.

Sending surgeons to the Solomon Islands and third world Pacific islands to provide medical support when they otherwise wouldn’t have the facilities or expertise. They also provide support to medical charities within the city who suffer from medical disabilities or cancer.

“It’s incredibly important (to buy into what the charity your involved with does). I deliberately shunned being linked to rugby when I retired. You have to start again and I wanted to stand on my own feet in the next stage of my life. But that’s mellowed and you realise that rugby teaches you disciplines, skills and values that you take for granted but are transferable.”

Despite Roff’s initial best efforts to step away from he game, his success with the Brumbies is something he will never forget nor will those who watched him. Over a seven-year period the Australian franchise reached five Super Rugby finals, winning in 2001 and 2004. In the illustrious company of George Gregan, Rod Kafer and Stephen Larkham, Roff describes a glass that is “absolutely half full” after sharing tremendous experiences with exceptional people.

The latter of those mentioned is a player turned coach who Roff is adamant will soon be coaching his country. So much so that he encouraged me to hedge my house in a bet given Larkham’s work at the Brumbies which has seen him take to that aspect of the game seamlessly.

“He’s a very smart man – without writing it down he’s a nerd! He’s a student of the game.” It was alongside Larkham in 2001 that Roff intercepted one Jonny Wilkinson pass to single handedly turn the Lions tour on its head by helping the Wallabies level the series before going on to win it in Sydney.

“Look it’s the question I get asked the most about so it’s funny what people remember. What I realise is that I was part of the most incredible rugby tour that promoted all that’s good about the games that’s ever been to Australia.

“The Lions when they travel do so in a way that celebrates everything good about rugby. I don’t think anybody in Australia had seen anything like it when the Lions toured in 2001. I was part of something very special.”

12 years later the Lions exacted revenge on Australia and one man who was present in 2001 had stood the test of time to still be wearing the famous jersey 12 years later: George Smith. “He is still the best player that I’ve played with. He wins the players’ player award at every team, in every country he ever plays at.”

“I think there’s no greater self respect than to win the players’ player award. I think he won it at the Brumbies seven years in a row.”

To go alongside a Lions win and two Super Rugby titles Roff also won the 1999 World Cup to complete a trophy cabinet that bears every achievement he could possibly have accumulated. A career of that ilk was never going to fade away and Roff’s decision to leave the game at the relatively young age of 31 enabled him to forge a life away from the game that has harnessed the values he learnt.

Rugby players don’t always get the chance to leave on their own terms but Roff was keen to not overstay his welcome. By helping those less fortunate he now looks set to continue putting smiles on the faces of others, perhaps in a different way than he used to, but who’s to say it doesn’t feel as good.

Joe Roff is CEO of the John James Foundation. Click here for more information.

by Sam Meade