Although Chris Budgen brings the curtain down on his playing career this afternoon, the veteran Exeter Chiefs prop insists there is still “life in the old dog yet”.
The popular 40-year-old has confirmed today signals his final year of professional rugby and that a new chapter in his life will begin following Exeter’s last-day encounter against Gloucester at Sandy Park (2.30pm).
Bowing out from the game he loves so much has not been easy, but Budgen insists the “time is right” for him to move on and focus his attentions fully on his family and his other day job in the British Army.
“It was a tough decision, but I’ve kind of been thinking about since Christmas,” said the experienced prop. “I said to my family that as soon as I started thinking like that, then it would be the right time to go. I could have gone to another club or played in the Championship, but I just want to be home and push on with my Army career which, as you can imagine, has taken a bit of a bashing over the years.
“Because of my age I should have a higher rank that I do, but rugby has given me so much, so now it’s time to give more back to the Army and especially my family.”
Since arriving at the Chiefs from Northampton Saints in 2008, Budgen has established himself as not only a popular member of the squad, but also a real fans’ favourite with the Exeter supporters.
Just how much he was loved by both was underlined earlier this season when Budgen, his wife Tina and son Dylan sadly lost their premature twins.
Budgen admits it was the lowest point of his life, saying: “This year has been a real hard season for me and sometimes there are much more important things going on in your life than rugby. It was real tough for me, I had Tina and the boys up in Southampton really struggling, yet I didn’t want to let the boys down here so I was driving up and down all the time trying to do both.
“Looking back now, I know I shouldn’t have even worried about the rugby, but that’s not really me. I didn’t want to let anyone down. The boys and the coaches were brilliant throughout and when I scored that try against Worcester that was a real special moment for me. I dedicated that try to them both because they really went through a lot in the short time they were with us.”
In the days that followed, Budgen was heartened by all the messages he and his family received from around the world – as well as the support his team-mates and others at the club showed.
He said: “We’re a pretty tight-knit group here and when they turned up for the funerals that was a great buzz for me, it showed how much it means to all of us. Together we stuck strong and they showed me a lot of support, so I’ll never forget that.”
Now, though, Budgen wants to focus his attentions on not only his role with the Army, but also family life where he expects to keep close tabs on the sporting development of his 14-year-old son Dylan.
“I’ve had so many great experiences from the game and I’ve got to meet some great people and go to some great places,” explains the New Zealander. “I’ve had some real fun times, but I know nothing lasts forever and I didn’t want to carry on playing for the sake of it. Dylan is 14 now and he’s pushing through with his sport, so I want to be at home more and see him develop because he’s done it with me for most of his life.
“Also Tina has always been there for me too, she’s the one who picks me up when I have low points or when I am not playing every week. That’s the stuff people outside don’t always get to know about, so I want to do more with her.”
However, in a Chiefs career that has yielded in excess of 100 appearances and 20 tries for the forward, Budgen says he departs Sandy Park with lots of special memories.
“Getting promoted at Bristol was pretty good,” he jokes. “When I got here I could see it was a good club, but every year since it’s got better and better. That was one of the reasons why I joined; just walking around that first time I saw where they wanted to go.
“Also that first year in the Premiership was also special because not too many people gave us a chance of staying up. As players, though, there was a real belief within us all and that came through as the season went on. Since then, we’ve just built on all of that and got better and better and to sign off with us playing as well as we are – and in Europe as well – it’s the right time to go.”
Although Budgen will depart the Chiefs, the big man will still be bounding around rugby pitches for the Army again next year. Fresh from success over the Navy at Twickenham a week ago, the prop still loves to pull on the coveted red jersey.
“That Army jersey means a lot to me, especially what it stands for,