Ollie Chessum – on the ball

Words by:
Andrew Vaux
Featured in:
May 2024

Six Nations England rugby star Ollie Chessum reflects on his inspirational rugby journey. Interview by Andrew Vaux.

Having played a key role in England’s latest Six Nations Rugby campaign this year, it’s hard to believe that in his teenage years, Lincolnshire’s Ollie Chessum’s preferred sports were football and cricket.

Now 23, Ollie remembers: “I was always a keen sportsman and played a lot of football and cricket. One day Ben Pickard, my PE teacher at Carre’s School in Sleaford, realised I was very tall and had the build for rugby, so suggested I give it a go.”

Olllie’s mother Michelle explains: “The school had a rugby team and they wanted him to play. At that point he’d never played rugby, but I remember explicitly he came home after just joining secondary school and said the PE teacher wanted him to play rugby. 

“I said, ‘you can’t! They’ll kill you! You’ve never played before. You don’t know what you’re doing!’

“I rang the teacher privately because I knew him and said that Oliver had never played. He explained that, at that age, a lot of the children hadn’t, so he wouldn’t be the only one.

Mr Pickard said if I got him a gum shield, he’d mould it for him and that’s where Oliver started. 

“He played rugby and football for another year, but you can’t really do both, so he dropped football and went for rugby.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Early talent
Growing up, Ollie supported Leicester Tigers and was affiliated to his boyhood club as a teenager.

He didn’t quite make the senior academy, which starts at 16, but was monitored as he represented England Counties Under-18 via Kesteven RFC and the NLD (Notts, Lincs and Derbyshire) team.

That led to an opportunity with Nottingham RFC for the 2019-20 Championship season, and even back then his mentors recognised his passion for the sport.

Andy Kyriacou, an assistant coach at Nottingham, said: “When Ollie came in, as tall as he was, he was very slight, shy, and just a nice kid. It became very apparent to us that he was very keen to learn, and receptive.”

Ollie recalls: “It was the place that gave me an opportunity to be where I am now. I hadn’t got offers from anywhere else – Nottingham were the last people to approach me and say they wanted to give me a shot. They were incredible with me. I was fresh out of school, and they gave me the tools.

“Being nineteen, thrown into scrummaging and mauling against seasoned professionals and some of the blokes who have played in the Premiership is a big thing.”

He adds: “Mine was a bit of a weirder journey than others. I didn’t go through the academy stuff, so I’m proud of that. If someone told me in 2019 I’d be at the World Cup in 2023, I’d have laughed in their face.”

International debut
After gaining experience with Nottingham, where he made 11 appearances, Ollie joined Leicester Tigers in summer 2020 – making his debut against Gloucester on 30th August. His standout form during the 2021-22 season earned him a place in the England squad for the 2022 Six Nations Championship – debuting as a replacement in the commanding 33-0 victory over Italy in Rome.

Later in 2022, Ollie played a key role in Leicester Tigers’ Premiership Rugby title-winning campaign starting in the final against Saracens.

Ollie scored his first England try against Italy in last year’s Six Nations, but was later ruled out of the match against Ireland after sustaining a broken fibula and ankle – sparking fears about his inclusion in the World Cup team in autumn 2023.

Believing his World Cup dream was over, Ollie told the Daily Mail at the time: “It was a freak training incident. I was tackled from behind and got my foot caught. Initially, I thought I’d rolled it, but as I rolled over the lads around me all turned away.

“That’s when I knew I should have a quick look — and my foot wasn’t where it was supposed to be. It hit home that I wouldn’t be playing rugby for the next few months at least.

“When I did the injury, one of the first things I thought was, ‘that could be my World Cup.’ I was quite emotional. Getting back in time was always the goal but we knew it was going to be close. I spoke to the surgeons and they said it would be four to six months. That would be – with no setbacks – a semi-realistic goal.

“I went back to the club, and I was given everything I needed to get back fit. I just cracked on with it.

There were days when I didn’t think I’d make it but that’s all part of it. And it’s flown by. I didn’t find it gruelling, I just found it a learning experience. The likelihood is I’m going to go through something similar again. Touch wood, hopefully not.”

Family links
Having won his race to be fit, Ollie played in matches against Argentina (twice), Japan, Samoa, Fiji, Chile, and South Africa – scoring his second England try in the match against Samoa.

But it’s not just Ollie who excels at rugby. His younger brother Lewis has also experienced success with Leicester and also captaining England’s Under-20 side.

So, could the day come when the two Chessum brothers run out onto the pitch side-by-side for England – following in the footsteps of siblings including Rory and Tony Underwood, and Billy and Mako Vunipola?

Michelle says: “Can you imagine that? That would be phenomenal.”

So, what are Ollie’s highlights in his rugby-playing career to date?

He says: “The whole thing has been a completely wonderful and amazing journey. But on reflection, I’d say my top three would be my international England debut, winning the Premiership with my boyhood team Leicester Tigers, and then receiving a player’s medal in my first Rugby World Cup.”

Now at the end of the latest Six Nations campaign, where despite their heroics in beating reigning champions Ireland, England only managed to secure third place, what does the future hold for Ollie?

“Quite simply I want to keep playing rugby as best as I can, for as long as I can. Even though I’ve travelled around a bit, Lincolnshire will always be my home.

“I’m in Leicester now, so it’s only about an hour away and I come back regularly to see my parents and grandparents.”

Photographs: Getty Images

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