Thursday 26 April 2018

Former international Shane Jennings: 'We want rugby players to open up; to take time to reflect, and to act on the issues'

Businessman and former Ireland rugby player Shane Jennings tells our reporter how we all - macho rugby stars included - need to open up about our fears and the challenges we face when things change in our lives

Shane Jennings: 'When you were the green jersey you want to do your best'. Photo: Dave Conachy
Shane Jennings: 'When you were the green jersey you want to do your best'. Photo: Dave Conachy

Joy Orpen

For top international sports stars, their game is everything. They are besotted with their particular sport, every minute of the day. So what happens when they get injured, develop a long-term illness, or don't have their contracts renewed? Their lives can change with disastrous consequences, if good strategies are not already in place.

That is why certain iconic rugby players are leaving their macho images in the locker room, and going public about their innermost fears and challenges. Among them is Shane Jennings (35), one of Ireland's greatest rugby stars. However, unlike some other sports champions, his history is not one of drunkenness or waywardness. On the contrary, he is an example to all young men and women that, with careful planning, there is life after the sporting career has run its course.

The huge enthusiasm Shane's father and two older brothers had for rugby rubbed off on Shane when he was a young boy, growing up in Dublin. So when he enrolled at St Mary's College, Rathmines, he was already hooked.

He pinpoints some of the reasons why he did well in rugby. "It suited my personality, I was determined, and I was tall for my age. So while I wasn't the most influential, I was a useful player," he adds modestly. He also praises his parents for promoting and nurturing his career.

In the mid-1990s, rugby turned professional. Shane was invited by a scout from the UK to play for Bath Rugby. "Good infrastructure was already in place in Ireland," he says. "So I decided to stay here." When he was 18, he got his dream job, playing rugby, albeit part-time. He'd finished school, but without any great academic achievements. "All I thought about was rugby," he says. "I guess I was blinkered by the sport."

Nonetheless, Shane knew he had to look to his long-term future. So he did business studies at Portobello College. At 19, he was already playing rugby for Leinster, and found he was well supported in this. "There was a development contract," he explains, "a strength and conditioning programme, and a constant learning process that sprung from the training sessions and matches played."

Shane, whose middle name has to be 'modest', absolutely refuses to make much of his very real achievements. While conceding that his parents must have been proud when he was selected for the provincial team, he quips, "They would have been happy if I was content being a bricklayer".

Shane represented Leinster for the next five years. He then played for the Leicester Tigers in the UK for two years, before returning to Leinster's top team, until his retirement in 2015. He was 25 when he was selected to represent Ireland against Argentina. "It was a hugely emotional experience," he says. "There's a great sense of achievement. When you wear the green jersey, you want to do your very, very best. It is such a privilege to play for your country."

Overall, Shane has 13 caps, and he's been instrumental in winning 10 trophies, including three Heineken Cups. His most memorable experiences were the international against Argentina, and beating England at Twickenham. So what's it like heading out onto the pitch with thousands of fans roaring approval? "There's a huge adrenaline rush," Shane explains. "But as a professional, you have to stay on top, and manage your emotions."

Even though he had reached the pinnacle of his game, Shane was always mindful that his rugby career was a finite thing. So when his professional commitments allowed, he did various courses, including one at Harvard Business School in the US. And, after his stint in Leicester, he did an MBA at Dublin Business School.

Shane says he has been greatly encouraged and facilitated by the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association (IRUPA) in both emotional and practical terms. A spokesman says, "Irupa aims to promote the welfare of its members by endeavouring to safeguard their future, both on and off the pitch."

To this end, IRUPA, partnered by Zurich, recently launched a campaign called Tackle Your Feelings. Irupa CEO Omar Hassanein says, "Mental-health well-being is something we place a lot of emphasis on, as a players' organisation. We strive to both educate our members, and to offer support services to help them be more proactive about looking after their own well-being."

Clinical psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy says, "Shane's story resonates with a lot of people. Any period of transition in people's lives can be difficult. So, it's about being honest and looking for the help you need - such as a career in coaching, for a rugby player transitioning out of the sport. Or more supportive help, such as speaking to a counsellor about difficult emotions."

He says the Tackle Your Feelings campaign hopes to encourage everyone - not just rugby players - to feel more comfortable about looking for help and offering support to others, when the need arises.

Shane says he has been fortunate to have good people mentoring him throughout the years. "I always knew my body was going to get stressed in the end [from playing rugby]. My main apprehension was around what I was going to do when I transitioned. So I was always upskilling. I knew the more prepared I was, the better my transition would be," he says.

Shane has now swapped his sports kit for a dapper suit and tie, and looks every inch the successful businessman he is, as part of the management team at Home Instead Senior Care.

On the personal front, he married paediatric dietician Cliona Godwin three years ago, and they have a beautiful daughter called Sara (1), with another child on the way.

Shane says many people face the same issues rugby players do, whether it be a self-limiting career, bullying in the workplace, depression, eating disorders, or any other practical or emotional difficulty. "Some things can be very challenging," he says. "But everything can be successfully addressed if you approach it in the right way. Talk to someone; be it a friend, a colleague, a family member, or your GP. Don't allow it to become a bigger issue."

And why are macho rugby players, specifically, sending out this clarion call? "We want rugby players to open up; to take time to reflect, and to act on the issues," Shane explains. "Other people will then think, 'They look tough, but if they can open up, so can we'."

To watch a video about Shane Jennings, or for more information about the campaign, see

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