‘Be there for your mates’ – Wendell Sailor warns of destructive forces at work
In light of Dan Vickerman tragedy, former Wallaby great reveals family and friendships helped him deal with ‘destructive and selfish behaviour’
The bond formed between the old guard and new playing for the Classic Wallabies at this year’s GFI HKFC 10s gave Wendell Sailor plenty of time for pause, and for thought given events back home in Australia earlier this year.
When ex-Wallaby Dan Vickerman took his own life, aged 37, on February 18 a reverberating sadness swept through the many players who called the giant lock a friend.
Sailor had played with and against the 63-test veteran and revealed on the sidelines of the 10s that time had seemed to stand still when former teammate Lote Tuqiri called with the news.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” said Sailor. “At 37, he was only young.
“When you talk about depression and about being in a dark place, Dan was the last guy I thought would have depression. So on these rugby trips now, anything I go to, I talk about being there for your mates. In Australia, something like 3,000 people commit suicide [per year] and that’s unbelievable.”
Sailor hadn’t played rugby since 2005 until last week – after shifting his focus back to league in the latter stages of his career – but when the call came through to join the Classic Wallabies, the death of his friend had added an extra sense of purpose.
“We get some energy from those young guys and vice versa,” said the 42-year-old. “If we can instil what the Wallaby brand is about but also just the enjoyment of rugby and just being there for one another, especially after losing Dan.
“Even when I was going through a tough time it was nothing like that. A lot of my mates, like Lote Tuqiri, Nathan Sharpe, guys like Hoilesy [Stephen Hoiles], they rallied around me.
“So when they asked me to come back into the fold and do some stuff together we sort of made a pact that we’re going to look after each other long term.”
Sailor’s own troubles included the two years on the sidelines after been banned from playing for testing positive for cocaine in 2006. He was playing Super 14s for the New South Wales Waratahs at the time, and said that on reflection now it was friendships and family that helped steer him back on the right course.
“[Vickerman] was different to what I went through,” said Sailor. “My stuff was very destructive and selfish behaviour. I went through some things I never should have had to deal with. But a lot of mates were around me.
“Everyone’s different. When I was out of the game for two years I still had things to go to. Having three kids [helped] too. It’s about asking for help. Dan wasn’t a big drinker, he didn’t party much.
“He was one of those guys in rugby you thought, mate, he’s got everything. He was so level headed. On the field, too, he was tough and the kind of guy you wanted to play for and play with.”
Sailor was making his first trip to the Hong Kong Sevens, and has combined playing at the 10s with corporate engagements, while stepping away for a week from his role as an NRL commentator.
“I haven’t played rugby for 11 years but it was fun, I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I still play touch and I’m involved with it at the grassroots level but to be honest I’ve had nothing at this level.
“Watching some of the Fijians and the island boys a few days ago I thought what have I got myself into here. But it’s been good to be a part of it.
“Over the years I’ve watched Jonah [Lomu] and those guys dominate the Sevens here and I’ve always wanted to come. But because of work and going back to rugby league I’ve never been able to.”
Sailor revealed it was Lomu who inspired him to make the first switch from league to union back in 2001. He went on to represent Australia 37 times before heading back the other way.
“Anyone who watched Jonah Lomu, he just dominated rugby union,” said Sailor. “He was one of the greatest wingers ever. I wanted to test myself after seeing him in World Cup in 2000. I wanted to play against Jonah. But I didn’t realise the magnitude of the player he was and his aura off the field.
“We became very close. We all wanted something from Jonah, whether it was sponsors or friends and I never think we got to see the best of him off the field, which is sad. He was an absolute gentleman to work with and an absolute beast on the field.”