This is the first part of our ongoing series talking to retired NRL players about their new careers out of the bright lights. Subscribe to get access. Get a FREE first month, CLICK HERE.
From the outside looking in, NRL players seem to have a pretty comfortable lifestyle. They get paid healthy salaries, train a few hours a day, travel around the country and play a sport for a living.
While they’re in the system it can be a fairly good ride. The NRL’s base salary is now $110,000 (COVID notwithstanding), which is certainly more than the average punter.
But it’s not the type of money on offer in other sporting leagues around the world. Where the best NRL players may be lucky to command one million dollars per season, that’s spare change in the worlds of the NFL and NBA.
Even the EPL and European football leagues hand out million dollar contracts to teenagers.
NRL salaries can help set a player up for their future. They can use it to purchase properties, invest into the stock market or buy a business.
But once the curtain comes down on their careers, the vast majority still need to enter the nine-to-five job world.
Some will stay in rugby league through coaching, development or welfare roles, while a select few will get media gigs.
For the rest, they’re left to figure how to spend the next 50 years or so of their life.
Former Parramatta Eel and Melbourne Storm centre Ryan Morgan was one of those players after retiring from the game at the end of 2019 at the age of 29.
After a decade of professional sport, Morgan decided it was time to hang up the boots and head into the workforce.
His career is one that Morgan says he will always look back on with fondness.
“I enjoyed my time at every club. I don’t feel like I had a bad memory at any of the places I was at which I’m very grateful for. I met some amazing people along the way. I wish I’d had a little bit more success at St Helens with such an amazing team we had. We came close a couple of times but fell short.
“But to be honest it’s mostly just grateful for what I got to experience from playing for my junior club, which I grew up in the area of the Parramatta district, I got to debut for Parramatta which was a dream. Then getting to play for Melbourne which I’m sure, secretly, is every player’s dream as well to be part of such a great organisation, and then I got to head over to England and play in Europe, and live in London which was amazing.”
Despite rugby league giving him the opportunity to travel overseas, he wishes he was able to stay with the Eels across his career.
Morgan’s time with Parramatta coincided with one of the club’s toughest periods in recent memory.
In his debut year under coach Stephen Kearney the Eels narrowly avoided the wooden spoon.
In 2012 Kearney was dismissed as head coach during the season with the club finishing dead last. 2013 didn’t see any improvement under new coach Ricky Stuart with the club again finishing last.
With Brad Arthur’s arrival in 2014 the Eels came within one win of the top eight before struggling in 2015 following the departure of Jarryd Hayne.
By 2016 Arthur was well into his rebuild of the club and unfortunately for Morgan, he wasn’t going to be seeing much of first grade if he stayed.
“No matter what sort of player you are, or where you’re from, you always feel like you want to be a one club type of man, you always want to show loyalty to the club that you debuted for. It was just unfortunate that year, fortunate for Parramatta, but unfortunate for myself they signed Michael Jennings and Brad Takairangi was the other centre at the time and Brad Arthur to his credit pulled me aside and said I wouldn’t be starting centre this year, in case of injury I’d be a back up in reserve grade.”
While Morgan had another two years to run on his contract, the Eels gave him permission to look elsewhere but things got off to a slow start.
“I think around April or round eight, which is a fair way through the season, and I hadn’t really heard much. I’d had some interest from a few clubs but nothing really serious and nothing put on the table.”
That was until the Storm found themselves in a player crunch due to a heavy injury toll and centre Will Chambers heading into Origin.
“One day I was out for breakfast with friends and my manager just called and he said “Melbourne want you to come down. They want you there tomorrow. You have to go home and pack up your stuff. You have to be on a flight that leaves 10 o’clock the next day.” That’s how it came about. Within 24 hours I was out having breakfast with friends and then after that I was at home packing my bag and flying down to Melbourne.
“It happened on a day off as well and I was flying out the next day, so I didn’t even get a chance to sit down with the Parra boys and say “I’m moving on” or anything like that. I had to send through a message that they would pass on to the playing group,” he remembers.
Morgan’s stay in Melbourne would only be a short one. Having signed only for the remainder of 2016, his contract was up for negotiation at the end of the season.
As he tells it, the Storm were looking at keeping him, but he would once again be employed as a backup and not a starting centre due to the presence of international Will Chambers.
“We were in negotiations with Melbourne to possibly stay there, then my manager had been contacted by Keiron Cunningham who was the coach of St Helens at the time and we got in discussions. It was between them and Melbourne.
“Will Chambers was there (in Melbourne) and he was on the right side and I liked playing right side. Whereas over in St Helens I had the right side centre position sort of set aside for me. It very much felt like I could be more a part of that team and be a reason we could go on and win trophies so that excited me and the reason I moved over there.”
He spent 2017 and 2018 on Merseyside in the north of England with St Helens.
Sent out on loan in 2019 to the London Broncos, he retired at the end of that season.
Having spent three years away from home, Morgan says family played a major role in retiring.
“It was a couple of factors. The main one being I was away from friends and family over in England. I have younger brothers and sisters so I was missing 21sts and 18ths and stuff like that which was tough.
“Also, I had a few concussions in the later part of my career as well and it just felt like that, in conjunction with being away from family and missing milestones like that, it seemed like the right time to hang up the boots,” he says.
After 165 first grade games across four clubs, Morgan walked away from the game.
It was a career he started at his boyhood club, and while leaving the Eels was hard, he got to spend time at the Storm in their run towards the 2016 grand final, before spending three years living in Europe and challenging for trophies with St Helens.
Having made the decision, Morgan headed back to Australia and, for the first time in his life, into a regular full time job with his parents at Nationwide Cold Storage and Distribution.
He says the change in routine and lifestyle was initially a shock.
“It was a bit of a shock to the system. I felt like I’ve always been pretty active. When I finished up my career I actually went and worked with my parents to supplement my income. So I was doing 12 hour days with them, starting at 5 o’clock in the morning. So waking up at 4 o’clock, quarter to four. It was a big change from what I was used to.”
What he was used to was training twice a day, having down time and being able to focus on his health and fitness.
“For such a large chunk of the day to be consumed by working and not actually being active and focussing on health and making sure my sleep is optimal, it was a massive change from being a professional athlete to going into something like that.”
While some freshly retired players speak of struggling to find a new routine or feeling isolated after they leave the team environment, Morgan said his biggest struggle was adapting to not having as much free time to do what he wanted.
“In footy, although we train hard, it’s only for a short period of time in the day. We’d start at 7 o’clock in the morning and we’d maybe finish by 3 or 3.30. So you’d have quite a long period of time to fill your cup up and do what you needed to do and make sure that you were ready for the next day and things like that.
“So being in that demanding routine of working those hours, I didn’t have that time to focus on myself. It was a massive adjustment to try and find that right routine for me and it was eventually a case of me having to pull back work and reduce my hours and try and find other ways of making money.”
A New Career
A life after footy is something the NRL became more concerned about during the late 2000s.
Up until then player education was often left up to the players themselves with clubs pitching in to try and get them working on their future.
With the introduction of the National Youth Competition in 2008, the NRL mandated that all players in the competition had to be completing education, whether it was the HSC or a tertiary course, an apprenticeship, or they held a part-time job.
Morgan was in the Parramatta Under 20s program and said he took his interest in health and fitness, and decided that would be his education focus during his career.
He also saw it as a way to continue working on his own performance and improve himself.
“I started a Bachelor’s degree when I was in Under 20s, continued that through into first grade and then stopped that and did my Cert III, then Cert IV (in personal training through ACPE). But I’ve also done a lot of courses from experts within the industry.
“I’ve reached out to them and done their courses and what they implement with their clients and what they do on a daily basis. That was the majority of where my learning came from, seeking out professionals within the industry and just learning off them.”
Morgan adds that furthering his education was something he did throughout his career. It wasn’t just a one-off.
“It was something I sporadically did throughout my career. It was never sort of constant. I’d sort of get a motivation to go do one and I’d finish it off, then have a rest for a bit.”
Towards the end of his career he became a mentor to the younger players coming through to first grade and says he used what he had learned to help them better prepare for life as a professional athlete.
That mentoring then developed into his own business.
“Getting towards the end of my career I thought I’d like to teach this to people. I enjoyed mentoring the younger kids that were coming through into the first grade system and over in St Helens as well. So it was just sort of a natural progression for me to head into online coaching after footy finished.”
The retired centre now plies his trade as an online health and fitness coach, helping men be healthier both mentally and physically.
“The main thing that I focus on now is helping men get in shape and that’s not only trying to have better body composition by losing weight or gaining muscle but also feeling better in the mental state. It’s all interconnected and you address one thing, you’re going to be flowing on addressing another thing so I just like to hit from all angles.”
He says part of the drive to be successful in his new career comes from being told he wouldn’t be able to maintain his fitness and health after he finished playing rugby league.
“I’ve always been in quite good shape and I remember people sort of coming up to me and telling me I wouldn’t be able to stay in that nick when I got a normal nine-to-five and not training all the time.
“It was almost a point to prove against them that you could be healthy, be fit, be feeling your best and looking your best even if you are in a regular nine-to-five job and you may have commitments and family. That’s something that has motivated me to try and help the average man.”
Morgan adds that his experience working a regular job before beginning online coaching means he understands the challenges the average person has in trying to manage their health alongside their job and family commitments.
“It took a while to adjust (to working full time) but I think it’s really helped me to understand clients that come to see me, how working a 12 or 13 hour day can be quite detrimental for their health and how it plays a toll on not being able to eat right, not being able to exercise frequently.”
While he does also offer one-on-one training, the COVID pandemic has meant everything has shifted online.
“So I’ve been quite fortunate to move, pretty much full time, into coaching. I also do one-on-ones as well when gyms are back open. I do it at a gym in Glebe called King Beats. I’m looking forward to that opening back up, but I’m very grateful to be able to work from home and do online coaching.”