Love Island's Jacques O'Neill, Mental Health And The Value Of Teammates

Castleford coach Lee Radford talked to The Sportsman as Jacques visited his old club
11:00, 14 Jul 2022

It’s not often that rugby league, reality TV and mental health meet head on, but when Jacques O’Neill walked out of Love Island this week, his former Castleford team-mates just wanted to know he was okay.

The 23-year-old left the Super League side in June to go on the reality show with the backing of his club. He quit Love Island on Tuesday night’s show to prioritise his mental health, in an emotional episode aired by ITV bosses.

Flying straight home, O’Neill joined his former team-mates at The Jungle on Wednesday morning having not slept, underlining just how important friends are when you need a bit of help.


Professionally, there is an option for the player to return to rugby league – coach Lee Radford has first call on his signature but expects O’Neill to take time out before capitalising on his new-found profile – ironically one his sport has itself so desperately craved.

But the bigger picture here is men’s mental health, a conversation that is changing yet has so far still to go, and a sport reacting immediately to pick up a friend at a time of difficulty.

Radford spoke to The Sportsman after O’Neill’s visit back to the club on Wednesday, and emphasised how sport – with rugby league leading the way – now prioritises the mental health of its players as it would do any other physical injury.

“I think the amount of staff we have got and the amount of time that players are at the club, if someone has an issue it is identified pretty quickly,” the Tigers boss told The Sportsman.

“We have a great welfare officer at our club who is in every day and has a very good relationship with the players so if anything like that is flagged up then we act on it pretty quickly.

“I think there are a lot of players who privately go and speak to him as well, that I probably don’t even find out about. If a player is struggling then I know to jump off his back a little bit or if there is a reason for that, so we are very fortunate at every Super League club that welfare officers are full-time and in and around the group.

“But don’t neglect the impact the group can have on that as well, friendships around the team can help with that massively, whether that is in identifying a problem or helping with it.”

Rugby league has two leading charities who support player welfare and mental health through every level of the game, in State of Mind Sport and Rugby League Cares. RL Cares Director of Welfare Steve McCormack is a wonderful man, a former Scotland coach who genuinely cares, meeting with players and others involved within the game around the UK on a daily basis.

State of Mind was set up following the tragic suicide of the former Wigan, Bradford and Great Britain international Terry Newton in 2010. The charity delivers mental fitness workshops nationwide and is currently working with referees to raise awareness and understanding of their role within the sport.

As a player Radford was as tough as they come, a barnstorming forward for England, Hull FC and Bradford. He played with and against Newton in an era where talking about your feelings was unheard of. Indeed another Bradford great of that era Leon Pryce, who has been open recently about his own mental health battles, tells me that in that unforgiving macho dressing room environment, it was better to keep quiet than say you were struggling.

He felt asking for help was a weakness and showing any weakness could see you left out of the team. 

“I think I’m very old school like that too,” Radford admits, having played with Pryce at the Bulls and later coached him as boss of Hull FC.

“Criticism and things like that you tend to keep within yourself and use it as a motivator.

“I think that is a generational thing and it is very more open and spoken about now than it probably ever has been. I’m probably from a different generation where the cat used to get kicked unfortunately.”

Castleford have first option to re-sign O’Neill if the Love Island star decides he wants to return to the sport. And his emotional openness from within the kind of toxic bubble that television and in particular reality television creates, could prove a key moment in breaking down macho stigmas and barriers that still persist around men’s mental health.

“The game itself does a good job of that,” says Radford. “Like any walk of life there are obstacles in front of you unfortunately and making sure people are around you whether that is your family or club-related to deal with that is pretty important I think.”

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