Warrior chief still fighting hard on the front line
Chris Budgen may be the oldest player in the Premiership but the mighty Exeter prop has lost none of his hunger
In his unique dual role as a Premiership rugby player and serving member of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, Lance Corporal Chris Budgen is taking the impending merger of his 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh with the 1st – the 2nd's name will disappear – on his ample chin. "There's a lot of history in it but other battalions are amalgamating and losing their names too. The Duke of Wellingtons are a well-known English battalion that are going too, I think, and the Yorkshires. It's modern times and they've got to make cutbacks." Sentimentality, unsurprisingly, does not feature prominently with this tank driver and hard scrummager.
Budgen is also the Premiership's oldest player, at 39 years and counting. He and Exeter arrived in the top division two seasons ago on a stealth mission, tipped by many for immediate relegation. They are out in the open now, after finishing fifth last May and qualifying for a spectacular Heineken Cup pool comprising champions Leinster, Clermont Auvergne – semi-finalists last season – and the Scarlets.
The Chiefs' next five fixtures are Saracens at home today, Leicester, Harlequins, Leinster, Clermont. So far Exeter have a six-try home win over Sale and bonus-point losses away to Northampton and London Welsh. "We slipped up against London Welsh [last Sunday]," says Budgen. "We were 14-0 up and let them right back into it with silly penalties and mistakes." Rob Baxter, the Premiership coach of the year for 2011-12, was upset but took it in his stride. "He doesn't go flying off the handle, he'd rather let 24 hours go, do the analysis and then fire the shots that need firing," says Budgen. "We keep on learning; that's what makes a good team. The club is growing."
Budgen continues to play services rugby when he can, for the Royal Welsh and the overall Army team. While England fumbled around New Zealand at the World Cup last autumn, the Army were there carrying off the International Defence Rugby Competition, beating opposition from Samoa, France, Tonga and Australia. Budgen was treated by the team's sponsor to a ticket to see the All Blacks win the World Cup final in Auckland. As a boy growing up in Hamilton, he had watched the 1987 final, rapt, on TV.
His clipped Kiwi has not been softened by an adult life in the UK, playing rugby for Newbridge from 1998, Northampton (2001-2008) and Exeter; he had joined the New Zealand Defence Force at 17, and in the Army he has been posted to Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq. "Hanging around with the RSM" is how he describes his present role at the Tidworth Garrison on the edge of Salisbury Plain. When on a previous visit I peered into the confined space of Budgen's Warrior infantry tank it was daunting to picture it chasing at 60mph across the Helmand desert delivering troops to the front line. In 2007 Budgen was stationed at Camp Bastion, currently home to Prince Harry. "I can't see the big fuss about it," says Budgen. "He's done Sandhurst like his brother, he wears the uniform of the military, of the Queen, and it's good to see him out there doing the job he was trained to do. Fair play to him."
Budgen did not feature against London Welsh and he is on the bench today for the third time this season. He scored a trademark try with "a one-yard stretch" against Sale but has been behind Exeter's recent prop signings, Craig Mitchell and Carl Rimmer, though Mitchell is now out with ruptured biceps. Baxter and the team manager, former England prop Robin Cowling, know what it takes to hold a scrummage up and hit rucks. Budgen, at just under 20 stone, has buried his bullish head between a million loosehead props and hookers. He is in perpetual motion – just not very fast.
He says there is no magic secret to his longevity. He is a family man with a 14-year-old son, Dylan, and – joyfully – twins on the way this December. While others fret over their body-mass index, Budgen tops up his training with 20-minute "burners" on the bike or cross-trainer. "Young players are ripped up with six-packs and all that," he says, chuckling. "At the end of the day it's what you can do round the park. If you can smash people and carry the ball well and do what the coaches want, that's what counts."
He wants no fuss around his 40th birthday in January – and then…what? "I've got a contract to the end of this season and I'll go on until there's no contract for me, or the Army takes me somewhere else. In the review I had with Rob he said it's all up to me. If I'm still fit and going strong and playing well, he'd keep me." Budgen has already passed Graham Dawe (39 years and 15 days in 1998) as the Father of the Premiership House. Could he be the league's first 41-year-old player? "It would be nice to keep breaking records wouldn't it?"
Premiership's oldest players
1. Chris Budgen, prop 39 years/246 days – still playing
2. Graham Dawe, hooker 39/15 – final appearance Sept 1998
3. Tony Windo, prop 39/10 – May 2008
4. Gareth Llewellyn, lock 39/4 – March 2008
5. Julian White, prop 38/289 – March 2012
6. Andy Deacon, prop 38/277 – May 2004
7. Mike Catt, back 38/231 – May 2010
8. Danny Grewcock, lock 38/180 – May 2011
9. Olivier Sourgens, prop 38/111 – May 2010
10. Mike Umaga, back 38/79 – May 2004
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