FOR most rugby league players, pre-season is already now in full swing but what happens to those few who are still yet to sort contracts for 2019?
James Donaldson, the experienced Cumbrian back-row who helped protect Hull KR’s Super League status last term, is one of those in that invidious position.
It was a surprise to some that the former Bradford Bulls player – still in his prime at the age of 27 – did not secure a new deal with the Robins where he has played for the last four years.
It is an even bigger surprise, though, that he has still not managed to nail down a contract with any other top-flight club since.
Donaldson told The Yorkshire Post: “Contracts finish on the last working day of November so I’m officially now no longer a KR player – and have no funds coming in.
“I can’t explain how tough it is really.
“Not just for this last month but the last three towards the back end of the season when nothing was happening on a deal.
“I was starting to worry about it then; I lost a lot of sleep and was waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it all.
“Then I’d be worrying about it during the day as well but, longer-term, I’ve got on better. I’ve been able to deal with the uncertainty more but it is a rollercoaster.”
Donaldson could, as a last resort, drop down a division into the Championship but he is backing himself to prove he can still feature in the elite.
Days now are spent making sure he is in shape for when the call does come but, with plans to get married and buy a house next year, he realises everything must remain on hold for now.
“I’ve been at the Village Gym in south Leeds four or five mornings per week so I’m up to speed and the lads training full-time aren’t getting ahead,” added the former England Schoolboys international who made his Super League debut with Bradford Bulls at just 17.
“That will put me in the best possible position. I’m pretty set on being full-time still.
“I’ve thought about it quite a lot; I wouldn’t have held out this long if I didn’t still believe I had a lot to offer – experience, someone who trains hard, plays hard and who works and thrives in an environment that encourages that.
“That’s why I can’t accept anything other than full-time. I’m not setting any deadlines or anything. I’ll keep working hard to do it.
“Since I’ve been in this position, too, I feel like I want to help others who end up here.
“It’s not a nice place to be – I’ve been depressed at times, struggled to cope with it and definitely wouldn’t want other people to go through it. But if they do, hopefully I can help them.”
He has been training with Chris Clarkson, the 28-year-old back-row who won two Grand Finals and a Challenge Cup with Leeds Rhinos but was also unexpectedly let go by Rovers.
“He’s been great, a massive help,” admitted Donaldson.
“We’re trying to keep each others spirits up and keep each other positive, pushing each other all the time. He’s actually got a trade as he was a bricklayer before he joined Leeds. He’s doing a few days here and there on that.”
Donaldson, who has reportedly interested newly-promoted London Broncos, feels the player market has altered slightly this year following the unusual events surrounding Leigh Centurions.
“I think with Leigh getting rid of all their players eight weeks before the end of the season, a lot of signings were made then,” he explained, the relegated Super League club hitting financial issues when they failed to finish in the Championship top-four.
“That’s meant when things came to the off-season, there’s not been much movement between English players at all. It’s more been ‘marquee’ signings.”
Leigh did offload plenty including Ben Crooks and Craig Hall, who actually joined Hull KR in July, but also the likes of back-row Jordan Thompson, who went to Leeds, and Peter Mata’utia, who joined Castleford Tigers.
Donaldson added: “I actually thought KR were going to offer me something; they were telling me once they knew they were safe (from relegation) it’d be sorted.
“But then there was nothing at all and I found out on presentation night (at the start of October) I wasn’t getting a deal. By then, so many clubs had sorted their recruitment. It was late.
“I’ve found out from other Super League clubs since that if they’d known I’d be available earlier they’d have offered me a deal.”
Other released Robins team-mates Ben Kavanagh (Halifax) plus Liam Salter and Matty Marsh (York City Knights) have opted for deals in the Championship.
But, knowing the likelihood of injuries and/or fall-outs once the season starts, patient Donaldson will bide his time and keep waiting for that Super League call.