Fighting on two fronts
April 27, 2012
Thirty-nine-year-old Chiefs prop Chris Budgen has no intention of hanging up his boots just yet © Getty Images
Exeter Chiefs have confounded the doomsayers once again and instead of experiencing the widely predicted 'difficult second season', they have improved and secured a spot in next year's Heineken Cup.
In just over two years they will have gone from playing Championship foes such as Moseley and Birmingham & Solihull to potentially tackling giants such as Toulouse and Leinster. It has been a remarkable tale of quiet enthusiasm, hard work and thorough planning.
At the heart of everything the Chiefs have achieved has been a 39-year-old prop who brings new meaning to the term 'battle-hardened' - Chris Budgen. Never has a player been so aptly described.
Based in the Tidworth Garrison on the eastern edge of Salisbury Plain, Lance Corporal Budgen is fully immersed in the heart of British military operations. His journey over the past 14 years has been nothing short of extraordinary. When he first arrived in Wales from Hamilton in New Zealand, he was turning out for Swalec League side Newbridge and tackling the likes of Ebbw Vale on cold Friday nights. A chance encounter in a pub with a recruiter for the Army would lead to hotter climes in Afghanistan and Iraq and also trigger a fascinating dual career that has now included 114 Premiership appearances - and counting.
On the face of it, his life appears all but impossible to juggle. He has two day jobs and is also a husband and father. But it does not seem to trouble Budgen. He is one of the most easy going individuals in the game and you sense that the overused cliché - 'he plays with a smile on his face' - could have been coined especially for him and may well be key to his age-defying exploits.
While talk of Playstation battles and Nandos dominates the Twitter feeds of some of the Premiership's other leading figures, Budgen clearly has little time for such distractions. "I train during the week with the club like everyone else does and when I'm not there I go back down to work," Budgen told ESPNscrum ahead of his latest appearance in the annual Army v Navy match at Twickenham. "I live in the garrison and when I'm not doing my rugby work I'm back in the army as a jack of all trades. I don't really have a strict structure to my week when I'm back in camp; it all depends on what we're doing. If there's an exercise on then I'll be on the ground or otherwise I might be doing vehicle maintenance.
"The battalion are great though, they just let me crack on. In the summer when there's no rugby around I'm just back on notice doing a usual day-to-day job. But you have to make some sacrifices as my family have. When the other boys from the Chiefs go off on their summer holidays to places like the Bahamas, I'm going back into uniform and back to work. The wife and the boys miss out on holidays so it's a bit of give and take. It's not a long-term thing but when the rugby's finished we're going on a big holiday, according to my wife."
Both aspects of Budgen's life are built on structure, whether it's within the barracks or on the training field. And for him, the boundaries between his career in the army and involvement in the Chiefs' squad sometimes become blurred.
"There are many transferable skills between the two. You have to work as a team in both sides. When you're in the army everyone has to pull together; it's not just the frontline troops, there's so much work that goes on behind the scenes doing the logistic side of things - like supply lines for example.
"It's exactly the same with a rugby club. What people see on the television takes so much work to get the boys on the field - whether it's physios or admin staff. It's even little things like making sure you have the bloody tea and coffee ready."
It is things like the "bloody tea and coffee" that have helped Exeter get to where they are. They have an infrastructure fit for the Heineken Cup and have laughed in the face of those who suggested that their eighth-place finish in their first season in the Premiership was a fluke. For Budgen, the remarkable campaign was topped with a nomination for the Rugby Players' Association Player of the Year award.
Chris Budgen is a hero at Sandy Park © Getty Images
While he finished last season at the glitzy awards ceremony at London's Grosvenor House Hotel, he started this campaign playing for the army in the International Defence World Cup in Australia. While the army ran out victors, for Budgen it meant that he had to return to a Chiefs side that had already found their new-season tempo and had jelled.
"By the time I had finished the World Cup, Hoani Tui was playing some great rugby. But fair play to the boys though, that's the great thing about the club. When someone gets injured or is unavailable everyone wants to get involved and take their place.
"It's been incredible at the club over the past two years, the boys are pretty happy about it but they are all still fighting week in week out," he said. "We've got into the Heineken Cup but we don't really have goals, we just want to keep on performing and hopefully success will come. But it's only our second year in the Premiership and look at Wasps, they are like a Munster of England with all of their history but if you don't keep pushing forward then we could be down at the bottom the table in a dogfight."
After experiencing the Helmand Province first hand and been fired at by the Taliban you could forgive Budgen for wanting to simplify his life and perhaps ditch the rugby. After all he is in the twilight of his career. But far from it. He insists he will play on next season for the Chiefs.
This weekend's Babcock Trophy match will be one of the few moments when the two halves of Budgen's life come together and while he is hoping for an Army win, he is also looking forward to catching up with some comrades over a cool one afterwards. That is the beauty of the man. He's a pre-professional era prop in terms of lifestyle but knows better than most the value of teamwork, loyalty and honest hard work - something others in the game could learn a lot from.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.