What is it like to be a modern professional athlete? What are the pressures you feel outside of performance?
I feel during my 12-year career I’ve seen a huge change, and the life of a professional athlete is very different to what it was in the mid-2000s. On the field, the level of science, technology and staff at your disposal is a world away from what it was 10 years ago, and a large part of being an athlete is the constant aim of being at the very top of your game come Saturday. In terms of pressures outside of performance, this largely comes through the new level of scrutiny modern athletes face, from both traditional and social media, and the 24 hour-a-day access the public have to your life. If anything, it’s made me more aware of my position and the responsibilities that come with it.
Did you have sporting role models when you started? Do you now feel that responsibility?
I’ve always had players and sporting heroes that I’ve looked up to, and hoped to emulate. I even had the chance to play with, and for, some of those people like Jonny (Wilkinson) and Johnno (Martin Johnson). I wouldn’t now put myself on their sort of level, but I do now understand that youngsters may look up to me and definitely the England team. There is a huge level of responsibility that comes with playing any sport for your country.
How does dealing with the media impact you as a sports star—how important is it?
Having captained both my club and England, I’d say a fair chunk of my career has been spent talking to the media. So, from that point of view, it has had a fairly major impact. The media are important. It is the voice of our game, it generates interest and debate, and if we want the game to grow, and the sport to get bigger, then the media is key. Of course, sometimes the last thing you want to do is spend half an hour after a tough loss or tough training session speaking to the gathered press, but it comes back to the responsibility of a being a modern athlete. That is part of the job.
How do you like to communicate with fans? Is that changing?
I’m someone who prefers engaging with them personally, rather than sending them messages via social media. I mean, when you see a kid or a family who have waited an hour for you to get showered and changed for a picture, then the least you can do is engage with them. I remember when I was that kid. It may be changing in other sports, as I doubt footballers can just walk to their cars in the car park after a match, but in rugby I think genuine fan engagements are still the best form of communication.
What impact can sports stars make when they decide to speak out on causes or issues they believe in? Should they do more of it?
I think if it’s something the sportsperson really believes in, then they can have a huge impact. I’m a big advocate of Movember
and men’s health awareness. I feel from the privileged position I’m in that I can get that message across quite powerfully and naturally to a large number of people.