I chatted to former Western Province, Transvaal and Natal fullback, Gavin Lawless, about his rugby career, which straddled both the amateur and professional eras.
You went overseas to play in France as a 21-year old amateur. How did that come about and what did you learn?
When I was playing provincial under 20 in SA there were a couple of guys who had gone over to play in France and Italy and I had spoken to them about their fantastic experience. Rugby was going through an interesting stage as although it was amateur, the reality was that European clubs were encouraging top foreign players through paid incentives. My under-20 coach had some good contacts in France and one of them came to SA as a scout and he saw me play. Soon after that a top club in France offered me a contract. The club was Begles Bordeaux, who had just won the French National Championship, so it was a fantastic offer and a great club. I immersed myself in the French culture and learned to speak French very quickly.
While I was there, however, I had to work for the club sponsor as part of my payment. That meant I worked in the Bank Credit Agricole for 6 months. This was a great way to meet new people and to keep on improving my French. I worked as an English interpreter translating French financial documents into English, with limited success I might add. The main thing I learned on the rugby field was to take a very positive approach into the game and not worry too much about taking calculated risks and any downside. South African Rugby was, and still is, generally very risk-averse.
I started playing first-class rugby in 1992 when I made the Western Province team. I was working for an insurance company as a credit underwriter and after work at 5pm, I would rush off to training, which was an hour away. I snuck in at 6pm for the start of training. We trained for about 2.5 hours, three times a week and that was it. We’d put in our own training and some gym work on the off days, but this was unsupervised and not monitored.
When rugby turned professional, the only thing that changed in the first year other than now being paid officially (in the early days we were given envelopes of cash after each game!), was that we trained 5 times a week, 2 morning sessions and 3 evening sessions. I was still working full-time so the weekly workload with my 2 careers was quite intense. Some of the younger guys you could say were full-time professionals, but the only reason was that they were students and they didn’t have a job yet. The first real full-time professionals in SA were those guys who finished studying and then just played rugby without looking for a job. It was a real conundrum for those of us who were towards the second half of a playing career and we all had to make the decision at some stage as to which career we would focus on in the short-term. Two careers were quickly becoming unsustainable.
Did your business career take a back seat when you became a professional player? And when you retired from playing, how smooth was the transition back into business?
My business career did take somewhat of a backseat only because there was a fair amount of travel during the Super 12 and also in the local domestic season when we were playing away from home every second weekend, where we would take the Friday off to travel. This meant my employer had to be very accommodating. Although, because of the nature of most top rugby players, we want to give our all and do a great job wherever we are, so it was a real challenge to try to achieve success in both areas of my life. When I retired from playing, the actual physical transition wasn’t hard at all as it was just a natural transition. However, I would say that over the years the most difficult thing to adjust to is just not being in the limelight anymore. Having spent the better part of ten years being a fairly public figure in SA and playing in front of 40-50,000 people most weekends, going back to having a “normal” life takes some getting used to. This I think will be the biggest challenge for most professional players who retire now. Hopefully, they would have made enough money to give them a great start in life and set themselves up. In my day, this wasn’t possible so you had what these guys have today in terms of the profile, but you had little money to show for it.
How did being a rugby player help you after you stopped playing?
Being a rugby player probably helped me in many areas, but I think in some ways rugby just helped me exploit the inner competencies that I always had. Things like discipline, leadership, mental strength, achieving under pressure, bouncing back from adversity, believing in yourself and setting big goals were skills that I was able to nurture in the rugby environment. There aren’t many areas in life where you can challenge yourself in so many areas and get such visible and quantifiable feedback and outcomes.
Do you watch much rugby these days? What do you think of the way it’s played compared to your era?
Yes, I watch rugby these days, but to be honest I love to watch most good sport. I love watching good rugby, AFL, rugby league, golf, and tennis, which quite frankly is the challenge facing rugby these days in my opinion. The sports coverage on TV is fantastic and there are so many choices. Rugby needs to work very hard to attract and retain their fan base. The professional era in rugby has developed much faster, stronger, better-conditioned athletes and the result is that there are fewer highlights in any game. Breaking the line and doing something that gets the crowd excited is a lot harder when you have all 15 players being able to tackle and cover defend like loose forwards. In my day, you always had a few players in any team who were slow and overweight, which meant there was an opportunity to break the line more often if you could pick those players out.
What challenges do you think the current generation of players face that you didn’t?
I think the big challenge now for most professional players is to achieve the best possible results, but also set themselves up for life after rugby. Your playing career is incredibly short and most players won’t make enough money to set themselves up for life, so there needs to be a clear path to their next career. I think the administrators are doing a better job now of helping the players with this, but I think we had a 20-year period where this was a big issue.
Are you still involved in the game?
I’m not actively involved in rugby at the moment other than just joining the board of the Powerhouse Rugby Club here in Melbourne. I’ll also get involved in some skills coaching at the Academy that the club has just set up. I did some coaching in Sydney at Eastwood under Chris Hickey about 10 years ago, but when kids came along and work travel increased, I had to stop.
Wallabies or Springboks? Rebels or Tahs?
I’m now an enthusiastic Wallabies Supporter after living here for 15 years. I am someone who lives in the now and looks forward so with my life in Australia, an Australian passport, and Australian kids, it was natural to support this country. We also all know that home is where the heart is and my heart is firmly here in Australia. Needless to say, I’ll never forget my roots and what I was given in the first 30 years of my life, but things are very different in South Africa now and the place I grew up in essentially doesn’t exist anymore. I have been living in Melbourne for three years after spending 12 years in Sydney so I am slowly transitioning to the Rebels. It’s in my interest to have a strong Melbourne team and for rugby to grow down here so I am very supportive of the Rebels from that point of view.
See the video of Gavin talking to Greg Clark on Rugby HQ back in 2014:
This article originally appeared on the Australian Rugby Business Network website in 2015.