Faced with injuries, under stress, reluctant to talk about anxiety: many professional rugby players suffer from depression, a scourge that the National Rugby League intends to combat with an action plan to better detect, treat and prevent this pathology. "Rugby players do not always allow themselves to share their doubts and anxieties, even as the pressure of high-level sport intensifies," said the chairman of the NRL's medical commission, Max Lafargue, during the presentation of this prevention programme, an integral part of the NRL's 2023-27 strategic plan, on Monday.

This taboo can "lead to addictive practices and psychological suffering", regretted Dr Lafargue, the president of the League, evoking for his part a "very strong and priority axis", so much so, in recent years, the voices of players affected by mental health problems have multiplied. In February 2022, Toulon hooker Christopher Tolofua said he had "developed a form of depression" after rupturing his cruciate ligaments. A few months later, it was Stade Français right prop Paul Alo-Emile who spoke of a "heavy depression" that kept him away from the pitch for six months.

Breaking the silence

While these two players, like Pascal Papé and Mathieu Bastareaud, have managed to break the silence about their psychological problems, some have not succeeded. In January 2022, Rouen fly-half Jordan Michallet committed suicide at the age of 29. In March 2022, his wife Noélie Michallet called for better psychological support for rugby players "to prevent this kind of drama", regretting that many players do not dare to talk about their psychological problems.

To achieve this, the NRL's plan aims to facilitate "the detection and assessment of risks", to "better identify and guide people in difficulty" and to "put in place prevention measures". "Personally, it's an approach that is really close to my heart," said Mathieu Giudicelli, chief executive of Provale, the rugby players' union, during the presentation of the plan: victim of a double lumbar hernia after a scrum in March 2018, the former Biarritz prop had himself gone through "quite complicated moments" after being forced to abruptly end his career.

Since his arrival at Provale in 2019, Giudicelli has accompanied more than a hundred players suffering from psychological problems before collaborating with the NRL to develop the plan: "For me, it was not possible for a player to know what I had experienced," he explained.

"A space for expression to verbalize this anxiety"

Among the six measures set out in the plan, a telephone line allowing club doctors to interact very quickly with a referring psychologist was set up on Monday. This will be followed in early 2024 by the implementation of a harmonised protocol allowing club doctors to carry out psychological assessments, as well as the deployment of preventive actions with players and staff.

"The idea is to be able to offer a space of expression where the players can verbalize this anguish, this malaise," added Sylvain Blanchard, medical director of Racing 92 and member of the NRL's health commission. Until now, "we weren't able to capture things, or at least in a very heterogeneous way from one club to another," he lamented.

France international Grégory Aldritt sees this as a "very important" development in the support of players. "I haven't been directly confronted with it (psychological problems) but we know it's there. We have to help all the clubs and the approach is very good," said the man who has agreed with his club not to play again before the beginning of 2024 to regenerate both physically and mentally after the World Cup.

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