You need an army to budge this prop

Exeter's massive New Zealander served in Helmand so he's taking Premiership success in his stride
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The Independent Online

You know what they say about owners growing to look like their dogs, but does it apply to tanks? There is something harmonious in the sight of Chris Budgen, the redoubtable tighthead prop for Exeter Chiefs, alongside the mode of transport in his other day job as a Lance Corporal in the British Army: the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

The Warrior is a squat and powerful armoured machine, manoeuv-rable to the point of turning on its caterpillar tracks through 360 degrees on the spot, but happiest going straight forward at up to 60 miles an hour, delivering seven fighting men to the heart of the battle. Small arms fire might bounce off it, much like the tackles of dumbfounded opponents as Budgen, who may not quite move at 60mph but, two months short of his 38th birthday, continues to thrive as the only Premiership rugby player serving in the armed forces.

He lives and spends his days off from Exeter's stunningly successful first season in the Premiership at Tidworth Garrison on the edge of Salisbury Plain. Meeting him there is to encounter, in the first instance, a popular player in the Royal Welsh Regiment Second Battalion's rugby team, who have won the Army Cup three times in the last four seasons.

"A lot of people have asked whether I could just do professional rugby," he says. "Straightaway I've said no. In the summer I'm back at work for the Army here, training and testing, and it's a big switch-off from professional rugby." The Army take pride in their rugby (the annual fixture with the Navy draws 55,000 spectators to Twickenham) but as Colonel Roger Thompson, the Army Rugby Union PR officer, says: "When the bugle goes, the soldier goes."

Budgen's service is serious. Born in Hamilton on the North Island, he joined New Zealand's army at the age of 17 in 1990, for five years, and was a truck driver before he came to the UK in 1998 to play rugby for Newbridge in Wales. Recruited to the First Battalion of the Royal Welsh, one of the Prince of Wales's regiments, he was posted in turn to Northern Ireland, Tern Hill and Aldershot; his duties included "driving, combat – a jack of all trades, really". When the battalion moved to Cyprus he stayed behindbecause by then he was playing top-level club rugby for Northampton. In the meantime, Budgen had also met his Welsh wife Tina, and they have a son, Dylan.

But while with the First Battalion he had a three-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2004; in 2007 it was Helmand Province in Afghanistan, in "soft vehicles" and on foot patrols. "It was a good job as we were always on the move," he says. "How often we came under fire depended on what sort of mood the Talibanwere in.

"The first time that you come under fire is quite daunting," he adds. "The crack of the rounds going past you, you never forget that sound. It's like firecrackers, you hear the whizz. It's mortars coming in, or small arms.

"But you just get on with it. You click straight into what you know best and that's your training. You keep moving.

"If you need to take a certain compound, you push through. If you've taken it, you get dug in and ride the storm. The good thing is that we've got what they haven't got, fast air support. The Apache helicopters, jeez, they've saved a lot of lives out there."

The Second Battalion give armoured infantry support and their B and HQ companies are in Afghanistan now, due back in the new year. The Royal Welsh have lost lives there, and Budgen's method of remembrance will be to play rugby for the Combined Services against the Barbarians at Aldershot next Tuesday. The match raises thousands of pounds for the Royal British Legion.

To make a comparison between rugby and Army service could easily be clumsy. Budgen describes it compellingly. "When you're on the battlefield you've got to work as a team. If you start working as an individual, big mistakes will come in. If you get one heroic guy who wants to run off and do things, fight the whole battle on his own, you're going to have major, major mistakes.

"Driving a Warrior, you work together as a three: your gunner, your commander and your driver. It's exactly the same on the rugby field. If you get one guy who wants to take the whole team on, it ain't going to work." But as Thompson says, there is one exception: "You don't expect to go on the rugby field and die."

In the Second Battalion's former guise as the South Wales Borderers and the Welch Regiment, their history included the American War of Independence, the Crimea and, most famously perhaps, Rorke's Drift. They remain 90 per cent Welsh, but there are Fijians and a Tongan in the rugby squad as well as their New Zealander.

"After the game it's like rugby from the old days," says Budgen. "We crack open a beer and have a good sing-song, as you'd expect with the Welsh boys." If Budgen occasionally shows off some fly-half skills, which get fewer outings in the Premiership, his team-mates tolerate it with a smile. They are proud of him and his efforts to fit in Army matches whenever he can.

Last weekend Budgen was barrelling around at Vicarage Road, hitting and hurting Saracens in Exeter's first away victory in the Premiership. He also spends time as a kind of doting uncle (that's the way he describes it anyway) to five of Exeter's young players in lodgings near their Sandy Park stadium.

"Rob Baxter [the Exeter head coach] has created a good team culture, on and off the field," says Budgen. "He could have signed a superstar fly-half for half a million quid but that would have been wrong for us. We don't rely on one player. I'm enjoying it, the fitness guys are looking after me well and I always tell them 'a little bit of fat doesn't hurt'. I just lead on the pitch, the best I can."