April 12, 2020

Article at The Rugby Paper

Ben lifts lid on life as a professional journeyman

Jeremy Blackmore talks to Ben Mercer about rugby life just below the top level

For some, professional sport is about glory, about trophies, extraordinary moments or triumphs against the odds.

Former Plymouth and Rouen centre wing Ben Mercer however, knows that very few athletes make it to the top and for the rest, life is very different.

He tells the story or the professional journeyman in his new book Fringes: Life on the
Edge of Professional Rugby.

Italy flanker David Sisi told The Rugby Paper recently that he was enjoying
the book while on lockdown in Parma, noting the parallels between his
experiences in moving abroad to Italy and Mercer’s time in France.

Mercer, 33, began writing the book after retirement when he realised that even close
friends were unaware of what it took to be a professional sportsman.

Mercer says: “I believe it’s a valuable perspective, given that we usually only hear about
sports stories from the very elite end. Most professionals don’t exist at that
level.

“This is something that people don't know about. Sometimes being a professional
sportsperson is great [but] there are a lot of things that people don't know about.

“It’s about how it feels and what it means to play rugby for a living, to dedicate yourself
to an uncompromising but occasionally beautiful game.”

Only the minority taste the top, he says: “For the majority of professionals, you play,
but to the wider public you don't exist. You earn but you don't drive a flash
car. You sometimes pack out a stadium but sometimes, you play in a deserted
park.”

Mercer says in the current coronavirus crisis, athletes are being confronted with how
precarious professional sport is with some players facing 25% wage cuts.

“It’s the complete insecurity that these guys have. I was very lucky in some ways, I
never got that badly hurt. There are all those factors.”

He adds that in the lower tiers, while players work full time, they do not have the same rights, protections and salaries as those at the top level. Many play with year-to-year
contracts. It makes life doubly precarious.

Mercer was first spotted as a schoolboy in Bath and joined the Bath Academy aged 15, captaining both his school team and Bath Under 21s. He trained with the first team on his gap year, playing alongside future stars such as Nick Abendanon and Nathan
Catt.

During his studies at Newcastle University he captained the team alongside playing for the Falcons Academy and Blaydon RFC in the Guinness A League and National 1 with Martin Shaw and future Scotland Sevens skipper Scott Riddell.

One of the many disappointments faced by professional athletes came early. Mercer never played age group rugby for England. During his time at Newcastle, he was
selected for England Students but had just sustained a hamstring tear which
ruled him out of all the games.

“My rugby career never really amounted to what I imagined it would. When you're a young player in a Premiership academy, trialling for England age group teams and
training with full-time professionals then that's how you think it'll go.

“One of my old teammates quit the minute he realised that he was never going to be good enough to play for England. This is not that uncommon!”

Other people carry on, hoping they will breakthrough later and make it to the big leagues or international arena. For some, that persistence is justified. As an example,
Mercer points to Nick Easter, a latecomer to professional rugby who made his
England debut a few months short of his 29th birthday in 2007.

Often though, whole seasons can prove ultimately futile without hope of promotion or
trophy success.

But the love of the game is the other overriding motivation: “It's a fun thing to do because you get to play rugby, it’s a great game. There's never been a better game in
terms of the skill level and the athleticism.”

No-one starts playing sport to be paid, he adds: “You never run around as a kid playing sport thinking I can't wait for someone to slip a tenner in my boots for this.

“You play because it feels great and it's fun. You're with other people in a group and
you're doing something that's bigger than yourself.

“If you pull something off that's skilful or exciting, that immediate feeling is fantastic.
So, I think that's part of the reason people keep playing. Some people play
rugby right up until they’re real old boys because they love playing the game.”

After university, Mercer signed his first full time professional contract with
Plymouth Albion and spent two seasons on the south coast, reaching the playoffs
in his first year. He then had a year in Sydney playing part time before
returning to the southwest of England with the Cornish Pirates.

Disillusioned and uninspired with plying his trade in the lower tiers, Mercer considered
quitting rugby and moving to London to get a regular job. It was then that he
was approached by former England captain Richard Hill who was helping to build
a professional club in the non-traditional rugby area of Rouen. As General
Manager of Stade Rouennais, Hill recruited Mercer and several other English
players, winning promotion to Fédérale 1 in 2015.

Mercer’s new book explores how it feels to live year to year, with teammates constantly on the move between games and clubs – and how professionalism irreversibly changed
Stade Rouennais (later renamed Rouen Normandie Rugby) as they moved up the
divisions, addressing the tension between progress and identity in a rugby
team.

He speaks about how it feels to be out there on the field and to occasionally do something extraordinary and how it feels when this is no longer enough for you to make
the sacrifices that you need to make to keep playing.

Having loved his time in France, Mercer made the decision to retire after four years at
Rouen. He admits that there was no Plan B when he began his rugby career. Thinking
about life after sport can be difficult for athletes when they are competing,
he says, even though they are aware that their careers are finite.

He now works with the organisation LAPS (Life After Professional Sport) which helps athletes plan for their futures. Having career options is important he says and
something he put an increasing focus on as his career developed.

“When I finished studying I was quite happy to spend a year training and wiling away my
free time, putting it into my rugby, but particularly as it went further on I
just thought if someone looks at my body of work, the rugby’s not Premiership
Rugby, it’s not international rugby, what are they going to see?”

With one eye on the future, he earned a coaching badge at Plymouth and coached in a school in Australia. Later he gained a qualification to teach English as a foreign
language and worked with French students in Rouen.

“Part of the thing with France was, I always wanted to go there, and learn French. So, I
made sure I threw myself into that, I got a coaching job when I was there.

“I was always trying to think, ‘am I moving forward with my rugby, am I having fun, am
I learning, am I getting paid enough money to put a little bit away for a rainy
day’. I wanted to make sure that I was at least doing a couple of those things
at once.”

He sees through the work LAPS does just how many athletes go through similar
transitions post retirement.

“It does feel kind of lonely in some ways,” he acknowledges, “particularly when you
leave a big team, or a team sport like rugby. You leave a squad of your mates
who you high-five every day. You can feel a little bit isolated.

“It is probably more common than you think because there are so many athletes, so many sports. The circumstances beyond the top of professional rugby where the money
is pretty good, professional football where the money is very, very, very good
– apart from those guys, a lot of people are going to be in a similar boat.”

LAPS also works with young athletes just entering professional sport at academy level, as well as those in the middle of their careers.

Opportunities can include gaining coaching badges or work experience, as well as more formal qualifications.

“You don’t have to commit hours and hours a day,” advises Mercer. “But if you can do
something, it just proves you have been a little bit proactive and you’ve been
nurturing some other skills or relationships.

“We try to give people different routes that they can pursue and instil the importance of
starting that process as early as you can.”

Having retired from professional rugby, Mercer now turns out for the occasional charity
game or day-long tournaments where he can play again with his school and
university friends more than 10 years since they last took the field together.

“The sport continues to bring me joy and cement my friendships, as it has done from the age of seven.”