Exeter Chiefs forward Chris Whitehead has spoken of his disappointment after it was confirmed this week that he will have to retire from professional rugby with immediate effect.
Part of the club’s LV= Cup winning side of a fortnight ago, the 27-year-old hooker has heeded the words of top specialists regarding his degenerative neck problem and called time on his four-season spell at Sandy Park.
It’s indeed a cruel and untimely blow for Whitehead, who has proved a popular figure on and off the field at the Chiefs.
Signed by head coach Rob Baxter during the summer of 2010 from London Wasps, the Derby-born forward has since gone on to make a total of 76 first team appearances, scoring two tries in the process.
Fittingly, one of those tries came in the LV= Cup Final – his final outing in Exeter colours – where he rumbled over in the early exchanges against Northampton Saints.
Although ‘gutted’ with the news that he has been forced to call time on his career, Whitehead admitted if there was one game to go out on, then the recent Cup Final was ‘not a bad one to end with’.
“Obviously I’m incredibly disappointed to be told to stop playing,” he said. “I’m 27-year-old; I’m playing in the top division and with a great club, so it’s a huge kick to the stomach and not something I was really planning for.”
“That said, I’m proud of my career and what I’ve achieved and I’m fortunate and honoured to be part of the Chiefs for the past four seasons. There is never a nice or an easy time to retire from the game, but to do so early is certainly tough to take.”
“As a player you’re always aware that you’re not going to last forever, simply because you put your body on the line every week. However, I know I’m bowing out on a high having been part of the Exeter side to beat Bath for the first time in years and then obviously going on to beat Northampton and lift the club’s first major silverware.”
“Those are just a couple of memories that I’ll take from my time with the Chiefs, but there are many others that I have as well. It’s a special club that I’ve been lucky to be part of for a few years now and the people, the staff and the fans’ – all of them have been fantastic with me and my family from the moment I arrived down here.”
Whitehead added: “I’ve been struggling with my neck for a little while now, even though I had surgery done on it last year, and there comes a time when you have to put your health first and foremost. When top specialists are telling you stuff like they did with me, you have to listen to them despite how much you love the sport and the club.”
“In an ideal world I’d play for the rest of my life if I knew I wasn’t going to get seriously injured, but as I’ve found out you are only one week away from retiring or getting hurt, so you have to listen to that advice.”
“As I said, the chapter on my playing career is coming to a close for me – and that’s very sad – but at the same time, I’ve got an amazing wife, I’ve got the first Whitehead baby on the way in a few months, so now I have to look at that next chapter.”
“Over the years I’ve worked incredibly hard to get to where I have within the game, so now I have to start again on something else. Right now I’m a little disappointed with how things have gone, but you can’t stay down for too long.”
Since making his debut for the Chiefs in an Amlin Challenge Cup tie away to Bourgoin, Whitehead has given his all to the Devon club and he says life in the Westcountry is very much part and parcel of his future moving forward.
“I’m still planning to stay down here,” he said. “I love the area, I love Exeter and if I can help the Chiefs in any way in the future they only have to ask. From day one, the club have been a huge part of my life and I’ve shared so many amazing experiences along the way.”
“No doubt in years to come I’ll be reliving all those experiences – including my try in the final – to the grandchildren. Those memories from trips to places like Bourgoin, Stade Francais and Toulon, they were unbelievable.”
“At the same time, the coaches, the players and the staff, they’ve all added to it as well. When I told Rob about the news, it was tough. He said he was gutted for me, especially after those last two performances, but it has been tough this season and physically I have to know enough is enough.”