Rugby is an incredibly physical sport and that means that players’ careers can’t go on forever. But at what point do players call it in their careers?
At what age do most rugby players retire? Most rugby players tend to retire between the ages of 30 and 38, but it can depend on the position of a player as this will dictate the physicality throughout their career.
No matter how much rugby you have watched, there is no doubt that the sport is incredibly physical. Players put their bodies through hell week in and week out and those continuous bumps and bruises start to add up as players start to get older.
It means that after a rugby player turns 30, the rumours about retirement begin to circulate. If we look at a couple of studies, most professional rugby players retire completely from the game around the age of 35. In terms of international rugby, players will often retire slightly earlier, around the age of 32.
When a rugby player retires it can be different depending on what position they play. We often see scrum halves retire at the latest, with an average age of 36. This is hardly surprising when you look at guys like Richard Wigglesworth, Peter Stringer and Danny Care playing the position at a high level well into their mid to late 30s.
You tend to see Fly Halves retire first as they tend to be targeted with a lot of physicalities. As the team’s most important player, it is hardly surprising that Fly Halves experience a lot of injuries and the difficulty of the position often makes players retire earlier than other positions.
Why do rugby players retire
There are really three main reasons why a rugby player will retire and they are explained below.
1. Level of Play declining
The first is one of the ones that can be difficult for players to accept. As rugby players get over the age of 30, physical attributes will tend to decline with the majority of players. This is not the case for all players, but most rugby players will peak in their mid to late 20s and decline as they begin their 30s.
The decline is usually a reduction in agility and physicality. It means that the level of performance of these players decreases. It can get to a point where they are just not at a professional level anymore and therefore are almost forced to retire. It tends to affect backs slightly more than forwards.
Some players will see their decline and accept that, taking a bench role. At the moment we have seen players like Richard Wigglesworth, Alex Waller and Billy Twelvetrees take a bench role with their teams in order to extend their careers.
One of the cruellest ways that a player’s career is ended is through injury. Rugby is an incredibly physical sport and usually, players struggle with injuries adding up. The cumulative impact of lots of hard hits can cause serious injuries which are just not safe to continue playing with.
It can at times be a single, serious career-ending injury that a player never recovers from that will end their career. We have seen some international legends retire before the age of 30 due to injuries. Sam Warburton is the best example of this.
The former Wales and British and Irish Lions captain had to end his career in 2018 at the age of 29 due to consistent neck injuries that required surgery. Warburton has had a huge amount of injuries building up and the neck injuries eventually caught up with him.
Not all players who retire through injury do it incredibly early. Pretty much every rugby player past the age of 30 has picked up some sort of injury that is persistent and often when these injuries build up, a player will choose to retire instead of play through the terrible pain.
3. Pursuing other avenues
One of the slightly rarer reasons why a rugby player might retire is if they want to pursue other opportunities outside of the sport. While rugby players are far from poor, the sport is not anywhere near as high paying as football. It is why you more often see players leave the sport for other careers.
Wales winger Hallam Amos is a big example of that. In October 2021, Amos announced that he would retire at the end of the 2021-22 career in order to focus on his medical career. We saw Japanese World Cup star Kenki Fukuoka do the same thing two years ago, despite being in line to represent his country in the Olympics in Japan.
We will often see players go to different careers after they retire from rugby, but there are still some players who change careers in the middle of their rugby careers.
Who is the oldest rugby player?
In English rugby, Richard Wigglesworth is the oldest player still currently playing in the English Premiership. The scrum-half came out through the academy of Sale Sharks, making his debut for the team in 2002. Wigglesworth quickly became a starter and was one of the starters in the 2006 Premiership final which Sale won.
Despite this title, Wigglesworth would move to Saracens in 2010. But it was exactly the right time for Wigglesworth to move to Saracens. It was just as the London club were becoming one of the most dominant teams in Europe. This dominance meant that Wigglesworth won five more Premiership titles and three Champions Cup titles with Saracens.
At age 37 Wigglesworth was released from Saracens and it looked unlikely for him to play in the Premiership again. But Wigglesworth would be signed by Leicester in November of 2020 and he continued his career. Despite being 39 at the time of the final, Wigglesworth started in the Premiership final as Leicester defeated his old team Saracens.
As well as being the oldest player in the league, Wigglesworth is the record appearance maker, currently sitting on 319 appearances in the English top flight and Wigglesworth is not planning to retire before the end of this season.