By David Roberts
Former Wales star turned adventurer Richard Parks knows all about survival – and he believes keeping heads above water is all anyone in rugby can do at present.
As the professional end of the game in Wales prepares to return in a fortnight, the man now renowned for toughing things out in a hostile environment reckons it’s going to take a huge effort to avoid the dangerous currents within the sport he used to play.
After weeks of talks over pay cuts, the united front shown by the regional players collapsed when those at the Scarlets did their own deal by signing new contracts – leaving the Welsh Rugby Players Association looking weak and ineffective.
For Parks – seen not so long ago in splendid isolation battling snow blizzards and freezing-cold temperatures on his latest world record attempt to ski across the south pole – what’s going on in his old world is almost as scary as his current one.
It reminds him of his own financial storm, which he reckons took him 10 years to recover from.
“There are a lot of people outside sport who may not fully appreciate the fact your entire livelihood and life is on a two-year cycle,” says Parks, who retired a decade ago to pursue new challenges around the globe.
“On one level you try not to think about it, but on another level you have to plan meticulously to cope with that. There are real financial implications in sport that the pandemic has challenged.
“There is so much uncertainty around – when is the game going to start again and how is it going to look?
“There are real financial implications in the professional game and that will have an impact on the mental health of the players.
“Some players will be very good at managing their finances, while others will be financed up to the hilt.
“I’ve heard some horrific stories of players financing watches and cars and all that kind of stuff. In normal circumstances they have the ability to make those monthly payments.
“The top 10% of players should be fine, but the vast majority of professional players, those without a national contract, won’t have that kind of security.”
Parks knows from bitter experience what the players are currently going through with their contracts and payments.
Having turned down the chance to join Leeds in the English Premiership, to stay loyal to Welsh rugby and join the newly formed Celtic Warriors, he then found himself out of a job at the end of only one season of the brave new world.
It was a real bolt from the blue and one which he openly admits took him almost a decade to fully overcome from a financial perspective. That’s why he has taken such a close interest in the situation the regional players now find themselves some 16 years on.
“The decision to disband the Warriors was a financial one, it wasn’t performance based. As players we weren’t party to any of that decision,” says Parks now 42.
“We felt we had the opportunity to be one of the best sides in Britain, if not Europe, had we been allowed to grow.
“The short-term view was that the region wasn’t financially sustainable, but the long-term view might have been different given the fan base.
“When the Warriors folded it was terrifying – it was like being pushed off the edge of a cliff.
“I’d just bought a new house in the Docks in Cardiff and, like most players, I had a nice car, a Nissan Navara truck. I don’t think I was flash and all I had in my house was a bed, a TV and a sofa.
“I was in the Wales squad, I was playing for potentially one of the best teams in Europe and I was very excited about what the future held for me.
“Make no bones about it, it took me 10 years to pull myself out of the debt of that period. It took some time to process.
“There are big questions now about what the game will look like when it starts again – what it can afford, the size of squads and the size of salaries.
“I commend the players and others in the game for having the tough decision to accept pay cuts in these difficult times.
“I know I would have taken a 25% pay cut to try to keep the Warriors going. These are unprecedented times and having a job on 75% of your salary is better than not having a job at all.
“Most clubs in England and Wales are largely propped by a small handful of benefactors. Not all industries have that luxury, so I think it’s worth being really honest about the situation.
“I think there is a question about where the game now goes. There were big questions even before the pandemic and, to a large extent, the players are removed from that. All the pandemic has done is accelerated the evolution across all sectors.
“The priority must be to look after the players and all the staff associated with the regions. There will be backroom staff and stadium staff who are all still on furlough who might not come back as soon as the players.
“As a society we only see the top few percent of the game, the 15 players on the pitch.
“There are hundreds of staff who service the vans and wash the kits, there are stewards and hundreds of other volunteers who are associated with the game who will be impacted by which direction the game goes.
“I think the game has a responsibility to look after all the people involved. Some of that will be around communication, some will be wellbeing and mental health and some of that will be making difficult financial decisions moving forward.”
He may have scaled the highest peaks in the world, and plumbed to some very low personal depths, but Parks is the first to admit that lockdown was as hard to negotiate as anything else he has had to tackle in his life.
Confinement is not something that one of the UK’s greatest explorers is used to.
Like everyone else he has had to adapt to a ‘new normal’ and now he can’t wait to see rugby return next month.
That, he believes, will be a vital step forward for Wales’ professional players, who have been under huge pressure ever since lockdown was first introduced in March.
With another British record secured he returned to his home in Cardiff Bay to recover and cast his mind forward to his next great adventure. What he didn’t bank on was being locked in at home with partner Jo and son Fred.
“Change is always terrifying at first for all of us. It’s not in our nature or our psyche, yet the paradox is how good we are at adapting,” says Parks.
“Lockdown has been a real rollercoaster for me. On one level, I felt very equipped for it and, of course, it’s given us as a family some really positive opportunities. But, on the other hand, it has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and, like the rest of us, I’ve had some tough times and dark moments.
Constantly reading updates about #COVID19 was making me anxious so I took a break during #lockdown. That hasn’t changed to be honest, but the global conversation about #racism has surfaced many emotions, some of which I wanted to share with you #mondaythoughts pic.twitter.com/3NadU8eBPv
— Richard Parks (@richardparks) June 15, 2020
“One of the things I really struggled with was a loss of momentum and a loss of autonomy and freedom. It was very different to being in isolation.
“I think it has been a real challenge for some people to re-integrate and re-calibrate how they interact with people after four months of lockdown. I’ve noticed in the last couple of weeks, since we’ve been allowed out and about more, people are less inclined to make eye contact and connect.
“It’s harder to connect with people when you’re wearing a face mask, we converse differently online – it’s all very different to how we interact face-to-face.
“We need to understand there will be a period of adjustment and a need to understand that a lot of things will feel alien and clunky.
“We might not default to how we were as quickly as we want. Actually, we might never default back to how we were.
“But I think you can take value and confidence from being good at the way in which you apply your trade.
“When injury ended my career the biggest impact was on my self-identity and self-worth and that affected my mental health.
“For those sportsmen and women who have been caught up in the pandemic there will be some who will breeze through it, but for others it will have been a monumental wobble in terms of the level of anxiety which comes with playing professional sport.
“The players have got to go back to owning what they can control, which is their own wellbeing, their preparation and how they serve their team. There is also an opportunity for them to realise they are a part of something much bigger.
“What the pandemic has done to society is really challenge where we put value. There are people working in society who have been taken for granted and been under-valued, the ‘key workers’ who are often on the lowest of pay scales, yet we’ve relied on them to keep everything moving and to keep everyone safe.
“I’m not saying that sport isn’t valued, it plays an important role in our society, but equally I think it’s not black-and-white.
“The 25% pay cut the players are facing is massive, and there will be ripples for them from that which should not be taken lightly, but professional rugby is a sector in society that is well-paid compared to other sectors.”