How rugby sabbaticals helped the All Blacks win the last World Cup

Rugby sabbaticals have as many mental benefits as physical ones, according to two All Blacks greats who have trodden that path before Ben Smith.

The Highlanders fullback is set to skip eight tests in  2017  to freshen himself up for the seasons leading up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup finals.

All Black greats Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are the most famous examples of a sabbatical boosting a career.

Both took their breaks during Super Rugby seasons and went on to star in the 2015 Rugby World Cup victory after taking a mid-career cause.

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The term "rugby sabbatical" first came into vogue here when Carter took a six-month break from New Zealand rugby in 2008-09 to play for French club Perpignan.

That ended abruptly when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in January 2009 and was out for a few months. 

McCaw had long had a sabbatical clause in his contract but did not invoke it until 2013 when he was 32.

When he announced his decision in late 2012 before an All Blacks game in Argentina, he expressed a hope that taking a break would allow him to play a little longer.

"Part of it is physical, but part of it is also mental," he said. "over the years I've never really had more than a couple of months off unless it's injury-related.

"The body takes a pounding regularly but it's when you lose that desire to get yourself over that and ready for the next week, that's when you start to have enough and sometimes having a break here and there will remind you of how fund it is when you put the jersey on."

McCaw's sabbatical gave him an opportunity for a belated OE. The All Blacks skipper visited Canada, France, Italy and the United States, travelling with friends and joined the studio audience on the David Letterman Show.

Life in a small rugby-obsessed country like New Zealand can amount to a goldfish bowl existence for top All Blacks.

A break overseas gave McCaw the anonymity he craved.

"To walk into a bar or restaurant and for no one to give you a second look was actually really nice. I really enjoyed that," he told NZME on his return in 2013. "That was the bit that was really refreshing - not to say it was bad or anything, but after a while the constant stuff here got on top of you.

"But you come back and you realise it's not that big a deal at all, really. We're pretty lucky in a country like this, people are pretty good."

McCaw also said he wanted "to not only have a break but also have a chance to get myself in good shape".

The results spoke for themselves. Free of the foot injury that plagued him in the successful 2011 Rugby World Cup game, he went on to rack up a record 148 tests and become the first man to captain two World Cup winning teams.

McCaw's experience inspired Carter to also take a break in 2014, aged 31.

"I've spoken to him [McCaw] and seeing him and how he's mentally refreshed and mentally he's excited as he's ever been because he's taken a step back away from it," Carter told Stuff when announcing his decision to skip the All Blacks' end of season tour in 2012.

"From my perspective his break has been a success and I think there are going to be a lot of similarities between his break and my break in terms of getting away from the game and freshening up."

Carter, by that stage married with one son, used his furlough to spend more time with his family and to travel.

He and wife Honor Dillon wangled invites to Elton John's Oscar night party in Hollywood and he attended the Coachella Festival in the Colorado Desert.

He was sighted chatting with golfers Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els at at the US Masters at Augusta last month and made fleeting visits to Hong Kong, New York, Macau, Kuala Lumpur and London.

On his return to the Crusaders, Carter said: "At this early stage, I've feel I've really benefited from it and the body feels good," he said.

"Hopefully a break like that will give the body a couple more years. I know mentally, my motivation is a lot higher than it normally is midway through the season, so that's a real positive."

It did buy Carter, who had missed the 2011 Rugby World finals with a groin injury, more time.

He was firing on all cylinders when the All Blacks won the 2015 World Cup and is still playing in France at the age of 35.




 - Stuff