SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs reacts after kicking a conversion during the NRL Elimination Final match between the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allianz Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

This article was produced in partnership with the Dry July Foundation.

There is little doubt that the culture of the NRL involves alcohol, but when two of the absolute best in rugby league in Latrell Mitchell and Cameron Munster - at the height of their powers, no less - can give up the drink to go to the next level, the question of “why?” remains.

Alcohol is almost impossible to avoid within the NRL and its surrounds. Advertising for alcohol is everywhere throughout the competition, to a point that one stadium is named after a brewery, and every ad break at halftime will bring with it a number of advertisements for alcohol.

Like it or loathe it, the ads aren't going anywhere - they bring in cash that is badly-needed by both the game, and the clubs, many of whom are still at least partially funded by poker machines and clubs, where a key selling point is, you guessed it, alcohol.

It's why, amongst the backdrop of a game that sells itself as the toughest in the world, players undergoing alcohol bans and then producing performances beyond what might have been thought previously possible, should come as no surprise.

The topic of alcohol bans in the NRL has been one which has been disputed heavily back and forth over the years, and while most clubs have some form of policy in place regarding its use, it's not rigidly enforced - and how can it be? Unless a player genuinely makes a meal of something while intoxicated, it's impossible to police.

But you only need to look back as far as the 2022 season to know exactly how important giving up alcohol can be.

Superstar fullback Latrell Mitchell gave up alcohol during the pre-season of 2022, and stayed that way throughout the campaign. While he missed much of the first half of the year with injury, his return saw him immediately propel the Rabbitohs into the final.

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South Sydney struggled enormously during the first half of the season. In fact, at one point, there were genuine questions over whether the men from Redfern really had a show of making the finals despite their four previous trips to preliminary finals on the trot.

But then Mitchell returned, and they parachuted into the finals, making it all the way to a preliminary final, and there is little doubt around the impact Mitchell played during that time. Recovering from an injury was one part no doubt aided by the ban, but his form and consistency from the point of his return to the end of the season was simply outrageous.

A 2014 Guardian study found that as little as five or more drinks in one night could wipe out the results of an entire month of training and conditioning on the body, meaning it's not just the night before an event when alcohol needs to be avoided at the professional level.

The study also found that alcohol has other key performance-determining issues, such as impacting your sleep schedule, making you far more prone to injury and that it can also increase the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, slowing down healing and recovery.

In 17 games, he scored 7 tries and assisted another 17, running for over 100 metres per contest and defending as well he ever had. His consistency, and ability to go for the full 80 minutes - speaking to the ability to transfer food into energy on the back of improved sleep and never having his body needing to recover from the effects of alcohol - was obvious.

Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald at the start of the campaign, he said that in just ten weeks off alcohol, he was already feeling fresher.

“I stopped drinking alcohol. I'm going to try to go for 12 months,” Mitchell told the publication in March.

“I've been 10 weeks dry now. I'm feeling so good, fresh. I'm putting my best foot forward and that's the main thing I could do.”

Sleep, or lack thereof (whether that's quality or volume) is a big determiner of how everyone shows up each day. You might not realise it, but not getting enough sleep or having sub-par sleep can prevent food being turned into energy - something we all need, but is even more significant for athletes. 

Mitchell wasn't the only player on a booze ban for 2022, with Cameron Muster, who had what could only be described as the best season of his career, also stopping himself from having a drink.

It's a ban he is continuing into 2023 after some previous problems with alcohol.

According to Alcohol. Think Again around 77% of Australians drink alcohol, and according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, a quarter of Australians aged 18 years or over exceed the 2020 Australian Alcohol Guidelines.

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But what most Australians don't understand is that the culture of having a drink that is so ingrained into the Australian way of life - whether that be at the footy, at a party or celebration, or with a Friday night meal - has significant impacts on our ability to go about daily tasks, particularly when those tasks involve athletic performance.

While most in our community will be able to attest to the impacts of waking up feeling a bit woozy the morning after a night out, the long-term impacts are far more serious, but potentially not as noticeable, when it comes to what alcohol really does to the human body.

Munster, being off alcohol, put together the best season of his career in 2022 with a career high in both tries and assists, so it's hard to blame him for continuing the ban into the 2023 campaign.

Ultimately, he couldn't propel an injury-hit Storm beyond the first week of the finals last season, but with 11 tries, 16 try assists and a staggering 145 metres per game, there is little doubt the ban allowed Munster to focus in and for his body to be at its best athletically speaking.

Munster also finished in second place at the end of the regular season in Zero Tackle's NRL MVP race.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 01: Cameron Munster of the Storm runs the ball during the round 25 NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the Melbourne Storm at CommBank Stadium on September 01, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Speaking to AAP prior to this year's season, Munster said he hadn't touched alcohol again since the start of the year.

“I've been off it since the start of the year, just making sure I'm right,” Munster said at the start of the season.

“I've spoken to the club and I think it's in my best interest not to drink for the first 10 or 11 weeks and see how my season is going but if I'm still consistent, I can't see why I won't do that through the rest of the year.

“If I do decide, I just need to make sure that I pick my times, but I reckon my best footy is me staying off it.”

There is little doubt that it's worked for the stars, and it's little wonder that clubs as a whole have often imposed bans on alcohol at crunch times in the season.

The Sydney Roosters, in a bid to turn things around late last year, employed a booze ban among other measures, and it worked to an extent, although they were beaten by the South Sydney Rabbitohs in Week 1 of the finals, who, funnily enough, were led by Latrell Mitchell in a game where he scored a try, made six tackle breaks and defended strongly.

It's why alcohol in elite sport has very little place in the season, and why, at any level, the advantages of going alcohol-free are plainly obvious to see in many aspects of life, both on and off the field.

With the facts on the table, and the high percentage of the general population who could confirm the impacts of alcohol in the short-term, it's little surprise that some of the best performances in recent times from NRL players and teams have come while under a self-imposed, or at times club-imposed, alcohol ban.

This article was produced in partnership with Dry July Foundation, a fundraiser that encourages you to go alcohol-free in July to raise funds for people affected by cancer. Click here to find out how you and your team or workplace can get involved.

1 COMMENT

  1. Is this the same Latrell that was arrested for fighting outside a Canberra nightclub, at 3:45 am, in February this year?

    Perhaps sobriety is not all it’s cracked up to be.

    [For the record, I gave up drinking 26 years ago, and still kick myself for not having done it years before.]

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