Alex Cheesman

Alex decamped from London to Cornwall to join the Cornish Pirates and we spent the back half of the year living in a shared house with some of the other players.

A former face of Hollister clothing, Alex was always assiduous about his physical conditioning and his diet, introducing me to a range of alternative concepts and methods when it came to health and fitness.

Despite his modelling and rugby credentials, Alex is actually an incredibly thoughtful and interesting character with a Masters degree from Oxford, not afraid to question the status quo and to pursue his own way forward. We’d spend the mornings before training drinking black coffee and studiously ignoring each other, trying to see who could read the fastest and learning something new every day.

He fell in love with Cornwall, married a local girl and is still there, pursuing his new passion. Have a read below.

How did you end your career?

My career ended through injury - due to a high number of accumulated concussions I was advised to stop playing after struggling to recover from a bad concussion I picked up playing in February 2018.

Were you happy to end your career when you did?

I suppose ending a career not on your terms is never the way you imagined it would go so there have definitely been some difficulties associated with that. In a dream world, probably like every other rugby player, I would have retired at the end of achieving an important milestone but it didn't work out like that for me and I'm ok with that.

When I had the final meeting with the specialist it was definitely a difficult journey home; I was still in a bit of shock until I got home to speak to my wife. By that point it was 6 months or so since I got the last concussion so there was an element of relief as suddenly the pressure of fighting against the symptoms to try to get back fit was gone. 

How did you prepare for retirement while you were playing?

I was fortunate enough to have gone down the route of studying before I started playing full time which gives you a bit of a head start in most jobs after rugby, but I've settled in Cornwall and have found a whole different field of work that I love doing - woodwork.

As players we have a fair amount of free time throughout the working week. My wife and I renovated a couple of old properties and this was my way into the world of carpentry. I had a real love for it straight away and this encouraged me to get my initial qualification in an evening class whilst playing, more through interest than anything else.

Luckily, the time of my retirement in the Summer of 2018 gave me just enough time to enroll in a Furniture Making course which would take my woodworking further still.

It's probably worth mentioning though, that no support or encouragement was given for this by anybody official in professional rugby or at the club and, like many other players at the club, anything like this was almost kept as a secret so as not to imply any interest in something off the field. Having experienced being a player at a Premiership club, this is a major difference with the Championship.

Are you still involved in rugby in any capacity?

I'm not involved in any way really, the timing of my retirement meant that I had to quickly throw myself into my new work in get up to speed in order to pay the bills from the point my wages were due to stop.

Although the club voluntarily supported me for four months from the month of my retirement which certainly helped and for which I'm grateful, it was quite tricky to stay connected to the club when you have such a short period of time to completely re-orientate.

I had the concurrent pressures of finding something enjoyable to do, of having to earn a living very quickly, dealing with the ongoing symptoms of a concussion I hadn't fully recovered from and the nagging feeling in my mind that the biggest constant in my life since childhood had gone.

There aren't really many things which would allow you to do all that but luckily, my wife and I managed to sell the house we had just finished renovating at the time which took the financial pressure off a bit. We also run a holiday cottage which I was able to take over from my wife, who went back to working full time.

If these things weren't in place, and without the support of my incredible wife, the situation would have been very different as there is no support (financial or otherwise) available to players forced to retire in the Championship. I suppose some of this led to a slight bitterness towards rugby, which seemed to just carry on moving as normal while I was trying to hash together some sort of plan and facing the frailty of the identity I thought I had as a 'rugby player'.

As a result, I haven't really returned to the club much although I still keep in touch with the friends I made there. I will probably look to help coach some mini or junior rugby at some point if the opportunity arises as I love the aspects of the game that are still present in amateur and age group rugby.

Do you compete in any other way now?

When I first retired I was quite keen to find something to compete in in anticipation of a 'hole' being left in my competitive nature. Anyone at the club would probably have said that I was the most competitive person in the team but the funny thing is that once I retired and the dust settled, I found that I wanted to compete against others less than I would have expected. I definitely don't miss the constant competition with teammates, as I think a lot of this actually comes from fear - whether that be fear of being shown up in front of your teammates or fear of loss of status, not being selected etc.

I miss the competition of matchday, as I think that replicates something more primal and natural - competing against another group of individuals and putting your best out there on the pitch - but I personally don't think 'training' should be oriented around constantly competing as in this regard, it suddenly changes from what it should be which is 'practice' and becomes 'performance'.

I think that's something that the club got wrong in the last year or two that I played and it certainly had a detrimental effect on a number of players in terms of their enjoyment of their job but also their physical wellbeing.

I'm still looking into competing in something, but I'm not sure what yet. I love competing against myself and improving on my previous benchmarks is the focus of my exercise now. I train a lot but in a much more holistic way than before, mainly following Crossfit methodology, and am really enjoying the challenges of new areas of fitness that, although they would have been massively beneficial in my playing days, have never been looked at by any strength and conditioning program I've been given during my time in professional rugby.

What did you do for work and how did it go?

I took on the running of our holiday cottage which involved changeovers up to two times a week, taking bookings, interacting with guests and also the maintenance of the cottage. Additionally I started out on my own as a self-employed carpenter, taking any work that came my way in order to try to get as much experience as possible.

What are you doing now?

Now, I find myself pretty busy 6 or 7 days a week as like most people starting out on their own, I ended up probably taking on too much for fear of not having any work! I'm starting to get more of an understanding of where my passion is and the work is starting to balance out a bit better; my first furniture and cabinet making/joinery commissions have been great and are definitely the direction I'd like to go in. The holiday cottage is still busy and I'm more independent with that now, not relying on my wife for help constantly!

Is this something you see yourself doing long term?

Long term, I'd like to be working at home on projects I'm passionate about in my workshop, running the holiday let with my wife and having a lot more time to spend working on our home life with my family.

We would like to be self-sufficient with food and energy and live completely off the grid; this takes a fair bit of work, almost a full time job in itself, but we figure that it makes more sense to provide for ourselves rather than having to go out to earn money to pay for living essentials.

We've been doing a Permaculture course which is about providing for your needs directly in line with certain values that go against the grain of a lot of modern living.

What does the work provide for you apart from money?

The woodwork has given me a great outlet for my creative side and a fresh challenge that has inspired me to get better at it. It's also opened the door to a whole set of people who you might never interact with as a rugby player, as we tend to have quite narrow friendship profiles, and this has been lovely.

What support did you receive with your transition?

I received a four month payout from the club, which they were under no obligation to give, but absolutely no other support was given.

Some lip service was paid to helping me find a college course and even get it funded by a college that was linked to the club but despite me chasing this up, nothing actually came back.

The whole thing was done independent of rugby, although it must be made clear that the payout was incredibly helpful and I was grateful for that support.

Would you say you have transitioned?

I don't know if I think that 'transitioning' is the right way of thinking about it, as this almost implies that you need to move from one thing to the next thing to replace it and redefine yourself as 'x', but I think this is just asking for trouble.

In my case, I think of it on a different scale - we all have this life and so far, rugby has been a very big part of what I chose to fill the first 30 years of that with but on reflection, it wasn't 'my life' in and of itself, it was just a thing that I elected to devote myself to that was very important to me during that period and is something I look back on fondly.

My life carries on regardless of whether I'm a rugby player or not, whether I'm a banker/lawyer/carpenter or whatever. Acknowledging that it's a separate thing and recognising that we have to choose how we spend our time and energy each and every day actually gives us freedom.

That freedom is something I was quite scared of (I think most are). There’s a rush to redefine ourselves as something else as we seek to find the next 'rugby' in our lives to make ourselves feel secure again.

At a larger scale though, we are still just living the same life as before and the same problems still exist of this human struggle for some sort of peace/happiness/fulfillment/connection. I don't think the answers are going to be found by hanging our hat on 'this is who I am going to be now I'm not a rugby player anymore'.

I totally respect anyone who has a different view of this, especially as everything around us is trying to get us to redefine ourselves post-rugby (and the financial pressures to do so are very real) as if the life you get after retiring is a different one that you somehow need to transition into in order to fully separate yourself from what was before.

Maybe it's more useful to see the whole thing as just one continuous process and recognise that things ebb and flow naturally rather than restricting ourselves to something like a job title. I definitely still don't have any answers but I'm getting ok with not being 'a rugby player', or anything else for that matter.

Did you experience any mental health issues as a result of retiring?

I suppose it's tricky to see that yourself, but I went through a period of mourning the loss of that identity which is quite different to just missing something/someone. If people would call that mental health issues then fine but I think it's only natural when you finish something in your life that has encouraged you to form an identity around it - identities are hard things to let go of! 

Otherwise, I miss many things about rugby - the match-day feeling, the feeling of a great win and the celebrations with teammates, the feeling of sitting in a changing room with your mates after giving your all together. I miss all those things and think about them a lot but I think that those things that we love about rugby are actually not specific to rugby, but are the result of people and relationships.

Rugby is just the vehicle that facilitates these things in a world where valuing relationships, honesty and trust between peers and team work are increasingly rare. In this way, I hope rugby retains its ability to provide a platform for these facets of the game we love because the feelings are what makes it special for all of us - for players, fans or otherwise.

What has sport given you?

I feel that sport has given me so many things - a love for all things physical, a job, travel, friends, memories, experiences. I have loved the whole journey and am so grateful for all of it, but it's interesting to note that the things I value most about my career in rugby are the things that are in no way exclusive to the professional game - the feelings and relationships I mentioned before.

These are things that any good old fashioned rugby club have in abundance and actually, may be becoming increasingly rare in the professional game as the financial side becomes ever more apparent, perhaps sidelining some of the game’s most valuable attributes and values.

I for one hope to see more Exeters and Saracens in this world, who albeit two very different clubs, seem to balance amazing success with brilliant cultures and impeccable values that focus on the wider experience of being a player, family, friends and good old fashioned celebrations, with top notch performance almost a byproduct of retaining these values.

If you want to find Alex or his work, you’ll have to get down to Mousehole, Cornwall. He’ll be around there somewhere.

You can take a look at this ITV news segment about his retirement if you’re not going to make it down there.