Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Niall Saunders: Why I Quit Rugby

Posted on 10 December 2021 by Charlie Pizey

Niall Saunders opens up about the struggles that led to him retiring from rugby aged 22.

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Niall Saunders always had rugby in his blood.

The former Harlequins scrum-half, who represented Ireland at under-20 level, comes from a proud rugby family.

His father, Rob, was also a scrum-half and played for Ireland 12 times. It seemed Saunders was set to follow in his footsteps.

But at 22, seemingly without much warning, he decided to give up the sport that he had played since he was just five years old.

Those looking on from afar may have attributed this to his ongoing struggles with the blood disorder, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, that he had battled since he was two.

However, the decision was nothing to do with his physical health at all.

 

Saunders says: “In the back of my head, I always knew that I had this underlying issue. I knew I wanted to quit.”

 

These doubts had been plaguing Saunders for years, but he says they really crystalised when he was forced to take time off due to his blood disorder.

“There was this brief three-month period where I was like, man, I’m so happy. But why am I so happy? It was because I wasn’t playing rugby and dealing with the stress of it.

“What I was really struggling with was my identity. It was always: ‘Niall Saunders the rugby player’. It was always attached to me, and it was hard to shake that.”

The identity was not just his though, it was his family’s too.

He says this added a layer of pressure: “My old man played for Ireland as well.

 

  “We both played scrum-half. So it felt like this pathway that had been made for me by other people. And I felt like I was obliged to walk down it.”

 

Those who love rugby might find this hard to understand. To many, playing the sport professionally would be a dream come true.

But professional sport requires a commitment that those who don’t play themselves could never really understand.

Saunders says: “It’s not a job. It’s a passion. You can’t treat it like a job. The second you start treating it like a job, it’s game over.

“Your body’s on the line. You’re constantly getting battered, you’re going in f*cking sore, not to mention then you’ve then got to do a big gym session, and then a big run session.”

 

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The level of commitment that is required is massive and it is completely understandable for someone to realise as they grow up that it’s not something they’re willing to do.

 

“I just wasn’t that guy anymore,” Saunders says. “I used to be, but I wasn’t anymore, I just felt I had no time to be Niall.”

 

The consequences

 

Saunders describes how the lack of time for himself and the build-up of emotion was starting to affect his personal life too

“I would just look forward to any sort of release when I had time off, and it was getting out of control because I would just wait until I could go crazy.”

He tells a story of how he went to Barcelona to visit a friend and ended up spending over £2000 in two days, largely on alcohol.

“It was just easier dealing with it like that, rather than facing the issue that I had to quit.

 

“I just had so much built-up anger and was treating people like sh*t. I was just an unhappy 22-year-old, I was unhappy, constantly.”  

 

He ultimately took the only decision he could and decided to retire from professional rugby in order to prioritise his mental health.

 

Dealing with the reaction

 

Inevitably though he’s then had to deal with people who didn’t understand his decision.

“People now come up to me”, he says. “They say stuff like, ‘you quit because you weren’t good enough’.

 

  “I also got a handful of random messages being like ‘You’re a f*cking p*ssy, grow up. If I had half your talent, I’d be happy. Get back to England and grow up you idiot.”

 

Saunders understands this comes with the territory of being a sportsman and says in general he just ignores the abuse, but it’s still an awful thing to have to deal with.

He does have praise for his former club, Harlequins, though.

“They were good”, he says. “Because they understood it for what it really was. A desperately unhappy 22-year-old, who wants to go and pursue another life.

“The head coach Paul Gustard was good, too. I had an hour-long conversation with him where he gave me advice. They were all good to me.”

When asked what advice he would give to athletes who are in a similar position Saunders pauses to think.

“The main thing I think is that it’s okay to change” he says. “You don’t always have to be the same person.

“It’s also so important to speak, I wish I didn’t bottle this up for years. I know it’s a generic one, but until these things affect you, you don’t realise how important speaking is.

“Look at me now, I spoke up and I’m so much happier.”

 

What next for Niall Saunders?

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Saunders then takes a moment to reflect upon his career in rugby as a whole.

“I gave it a go, you know?” He says, “I really believe that if I had carried on I would have played for Ireland, and that’s enough for me.

 


“I would have been miserable doing it. I sometimes watch them play and think it would have been nice, but for me the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.”  

 

Saunders’ plan now is to move to the United States to play rugby in Utah where he will play on a short term contract for six months.

This will allow him to spend the other six months a year travelling.

This move will give him the opportunity to use his skill to earn money, but without the pressure of playing top level rugby in this country.

“I’m a good rugby player, I’m qualified to do it”, he says, “I’m an athlete, not an academic.

“Playing rugby for six months at a time won’t be too bad, and it gives me a purpose but allows me to then travel.”

I suggest he is finally using his skillset in a way that makes him happy, rather than in the way he is told he should.

“Exactly, it’s a lifestyle that works for me” he says.

It’s hard to not be happy for him.