The Making of…Ollie Chessum

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A meteoric rise is an oft overblown cliché in professional sport.

A meteoric rise is an oft overblown cliché in professional sport.

Only in a few rare instances does an individual sprout from nowhere to reach critical acclaim, surprising even their nearest and dearest as they soar to the top.

Ollie Chessum is one of those cases. Less than a decade after picking up a rugby ball for the first time, he was clutching the red rose on his England training jacket and belting out ‘God Save the Queen’.

Just two years prior to that, he was playing for Nottingham in the English Championship and if you look back a further 12 months, you would find a gangly Chessum in the Kesteven Rugby Club second XV.

Make no mistake, this is no fluke, and some of those who know the 22-year-old best have earmarked him as a future England captain.

From Newark to Nottingham and Sleaford to Sydney, this is Chessum’s story by those who have helped him along the way…

Chessum was the first of three boys born to 6ft2in Michelle and 6ft5in Paddy, and so he was blessed with a natural athleticism which he put to good use in a wide array of sports from a young age.

Football and cricket caught his eye initially and it was not until he reached senior school that he gave rugby a go.

It was a change of tack his mother was not initially on board with.

“He came home one evening and said he’d been picked to play rugby,” she recalled.

“I explicitly remember saying, ‘there’s no way you can play, they’ll kill you, you don’t know what you’re doing.’

“He had never played before then. We weren’t a particularly big rugby family although we did follow international rugby.”

Little did Michelle know then, just how closely she would be following international rugby a few years later.

While Chessum enjoyed his first foray into rugby, that was not his sole focus until well into his teens.

At Carre’s Grammar School, Chessum continued to play cricket and showed off his prowess with the little red ball on England’s tour of Australia, bowling out Danny Care during a recovery beach session.

Carre’s certainly held a special place in Chessum’s heart. He sang No Woman No Cry on a school cricket tour and stuck with the Bob Marley classic when asked to sing on the England team bus down under.

Head of Rugby and Sport during Chessum’s time at the Sleaford-based school, James Offer, says that the second-row’s lack of rugby pedigree played to his advantage.

“I think because he was late to rugby, he was very coachable. He didn’t think he knew everything and so he was just open to absolutely anything.

“There are so many people you coach who have enormous potential, but they just don’t listen to you, or just don’t take the information onboard.

“I think it’s just so obvious that he is that person who listens.”

According to Offer, that thirst for learning is still evident now.

“When he first started playing for Leicester Tigers you could see he was making improvements every single game,” he said.

“I got the impression that Borthwick liked his ability to learn and improve quickly. He plays 80 minutes, pretty much every game for Tigers and England, which shows how valuable he’s become.

“He’s excellent at taking on information and applying it quickly, and he’s one of those guys that just keeps going.”

Chessum was by all accounts, a late bloomer, and even Michelle admits that he was not a standout star until he reached sixth form.

Physically of course, he was. And that 6ft7in frame started to cause serious damage in his final two seasons of school rugby.

“From our own kick-off, he would sprint forward, leap high in the air and take the ball on the run,” recalled Offer.

“He was starting to show great physicality too. We played a National Cup game away in Derbyshire and he got yellow carded for clearing someone out.

“It was completely legal, but it was just so hard that I think the referee panicked. He was absolutely beside himself that he’d been yellow carded for an excellent piece of play.

“It was around that time we started to think he had a real chance, but we just didn’t know if he was going to get those opportunities.”

Hoping to progress his game outside of school, Chessum sought out a local club.

He initially joined Newark but after a frustrating couple of years where opportunities were few and far between, he joined Kesteven Rugby Club on the advice of his cousin, Ben.

Coach Phil Jordan was immediately struck by his maturity and professionalism at an age where many boys were falling out of love with the game.

“We had coached that bunch of lads since they were seven or eight and Ollie joined at about 15, 16,” said Jordan.

“They all started getting other interests and some of them had dropped out. It was a case of ‘I’m not coming training tonight because I’m on the Xbox,’ and all that sort of stuff.

“That was the one attribute that set him apart. Even though he joined a bit later on, he came with a real determination and maturity which the others didn’t have.”

His wholehearted commitment to a cause he had no prior allegiance to earned a lot of respect among his new teammates.

“That ability to pitch up with a bunch of teenagers and command a bit of respect was certainly unusual,” said Jordan.

“If you want to keep lads of that age together, you need them to be leading and driving it. He was definitely a big part of that.”

Word of his leadership credentials was soon spreading beyond Lincolnshire.

After being put forward for the county side by Jordan and fellow coach Phil Eagle, Chessum was selected for an England Counties tour of Ireland.

The side would return home with a successful record, which at the time was something of a rarity.

Jordan recalls reading reports of the Tour and tells of his surprise that Chessum had been made captain.

“He said that one evening they had been doing some team building and had talked about leadership,” said Jordan.

“They asked the boys to make the decision for who should be captain after spending a lot of time together as a group.

“Every single player in the squad bar Ollie had nominated him to be captain. The only player that didn’t pick him was Ollie.”

Chessum was flying by this stage, and not just in the lineout, having been picked up by boyhood club Leicester Tigers.

Despite showing huge potential, the decision was made to send him to Championship side Nottingham in order to gain more first-team experience.

Just as he had done at Kesteven, Chessum had no trouble settling into an environment that many may have found daunting.

“He fitted in remarkably well with the lads for an under-19s player,” said Chessum’s Nottingham head coach, Neil Fowkes.

“He took it all in his stride, got on with the job and asked the right questions. He went from 107 kilos to 114 kilos in a preseason, which is pretty impressive, and he didn’t lose any of the athleticism that he is obviously blessed with.

“I had senior players come into the office and say, ‘who is this lad you’ve brought in? He’s definitely got the attributes to be a player.’

“As coaching staff, we had to be quite careful with him because the temptation was to put him in every week, and as a 19-year-old, that can be quite difficult.

“We were mindful of not exposing him too much but by Christmas, it was inevitable, he was the starting lock of the club as an under-19.”

One performance in particular caught the eye of those back at Tigers. In a televised fixture against Coventry, Chessum claimed four line-out steals in the first half alone.

From there, it was quite clear that he would return to Tigers to be integrated into their senior set-up, with the club in constant communication during the latter stages of his spell at Lady Bay.

Though the bright lights of the Premiership awaited, Chessum remained level-headed, driving from Lincoln to Nottingham on a daily basis for training even though he was only paid a match fee and a fixed sum for expenses.

For Fowkes, Chessum’s drive coupled with the exposure to an immensely physical and challenging league ensured he had the best possible preparation for top-flight rugby.

“Ollie deserves a lot of credit for his development,” he said.

“He had the desire to come and do it and he deserves everything he’s getting right now.”

Chessum played 23 times for Leicester during his breakout season and completed the full 80 minutes in their memorable Premiership final win over Saracens.

His first England try came against Italy in Round 2 of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations, having made his debut against the same opposition at the same stage a year ago.

When he was then named in the England squad for last year’s Championship finale against France, former Kesteven coach Eagle could not believe his luck.

“I had bought some ridiculously priced tickets for the game, not ever thinking that he’d be playing at the Stade de France,” said Eagle.

“France had already won by the time he came on but I think I was probably the loudest Englishman in the stand at that point, much to my wife’s dismay.”

Colleague Jordan chuckles when pausing to consider Chessum’s journey: “Playing with him is a bit of a claim to fame.

“I think he played about five second team games but didn’t ever play in the first team.

“Your job as a good second team captain is always to keep the talented ones under the radar. I remember having a few conversations saying, ‘he’s not quite ready yet, he needs another game.’”

Eagle added: “Phil did ask me about a year ago, whether we could get odds on him becoming the next England men’s captain, but I’ve struggled to find some odds for that, so we haven’t put it on.”

Mum Michelle watched on from home as he starred in Australia last summer, with his first start coming in the series decider in Sydney.

She was, however, in attendance for his first Twickenham outing in an England shirt in Round 1 of this year’s Championship, but admits her feelings remain the same wherever she’s watching.

“I’m just clock-watching for 80 minutes and hoping that he comes off pleased with his performance,” she said.

“It’s quite a brutal sport, perhaps he should have concentrated on cricket!”

Cricket’s loss is rugby’s gain and Chessum’s upward journey is showing no sign of stopping any time soon.

His younger brother Lewis won’t be far behind either, having skippered England’s Under-20s to three consecutive wins at the start of this year’s junior campaign.

Whatever lies ahead for the older Chessum brother, Michelle is delighted to know that her boy is doing something he loves.

“I’m just really happy that he’s doing something which was essentially a hobby and is now his job,” said Michelle.

“He’s good at it and more importantly, he’s enjoying himself. What do parents want more than for their children to be happy?”