Overcoming Obstacles – The Chris Czekaj Story
By Craig Muncey
A Cruel injury A young winger who had suddenly appeared on the international scene and thrived. In a World Cup year, it seemed Chris Czekaj had so much to look forward to. Then on the 2nd June 2007 playing a test match in Australia, all hopes of a World Cup appearance came to a hurtling stop. Czekaj suffered a horrendous leg compound fracture. Players who were on the field that day all knew from the noise of the collision it was a bad one. The player was twisting in agony, and removed from the field, what were his thoughts as his World Cup dream lay in shreds? Chris Czekaj takes up the story. “ It was obviously a tough time, and I was just finding my feet at international level. I was hopeful of a World Cup spot. It was difficult to take early on. There was a doubt that I’d play rugby again and was told initially that the aim was to get back walking and being able to run around with my kids. My mindset changed quickly, though, within a day or two. I was at the end of two years of full time professional rugby and had nothing else going on at the time. Rugby was everything, and my parents taught me never to give up, so my mindset was I’m getting back to playing, no matter what. From then on, there was never a doubt in my mind that I’d make it back.”
With most sports, injuries will occur. Chris clearly had a long period of rehabilitation ahead of him from the broken leg. There is not just physical recovery but mentally as well. How did he cope? “ It was a really difficult year of ups and downs. I spent the first four months on crutches, only able to rest my broken leg on the floor. Any weight-bearing was not allowed. Food kept me well mentally. As an athlete, there are not many opportunities to eat what you want, so I took advantage of those four months. This helped, but meant it was difficult when I was allowed to start training again. During my rehab, numerous niggles that set me back, especially when I was able to start running again. All I wanted to do was keep improving and progressing, so these setbacks got me down.”
“I don’t remember a time though when I doubted being able to return to playing or that I wouldn’t be the player I was. It took me a year to a year and a half to really get back to the level I was. It was difficult not being able to play as well as I could before, but I knew it was still in me. I was still young, so I was lucky in that respect, I had time to get myself back. As well as that, just before we went on tour to Australia, I had signed a new three-year contract with the Cardiff Blues. I think mentally, it would have been a different story if I had only one year left on a contract. The pressure of not playing regular rugby while looking for a contract is probably one of the toughest parts of being a player. I did manage to get back to a high-level thanks to many people. I feel I probably played some of my best rugby a few years later, which allowed me to play for Wales again.” (Chris returned to international rugby in 2009 against Canada, scoring a try on his return).
A New Family Abroad
In 2014, an opportunity arose for Chris and his new family to move abroad and start a rugby career with Colomiers in the South-West of France. A young family going anywhere, especially abroad, from friends and family must be stressful. What was the thought process, and was this a tough decision to make? “ In the end, this wasn’t a decision. I was in the last few months of my contract with the Cardiff Blues and had been told they weren’t keeping me on. I hadn’t played for the majority of the season, so I was in the pressurised situation mentioned before. Colomiers was the only offer that came in, so the decision was out of my hands. Although the thought of moving my wife Kat and 2-year-old son was daunting, we were all really excited about it.”
“Moving abroad was probably the toughest part of it. Packing up a house we had been in for six years and moving the majority of it over was both stressful and costly. I had to move out there first due to training, so this left Kat at home having to organise everything. The same happened on the move back, so she took a lot of the stress away from me. I was out in France for around two weeks on my own, and only training between 8am and around 1pm on training days. I had a lot of time alone. Being in a country where you don’t speak the language and trying to go shopping and other day to day things was stressful. As well as missing the family and dealing with a huge life change. It was tough, but now I feel proud that I and my family, managed to overcome these initial challenges.
Another Cruel Injury
Picture the scene. The first home league game of the season. The family are in the stands to watch you play, an opportunity to show the home supporters what you can do. Then another cruel stroke of luck. Chris receives a head injury, which knocks him unconscious and he suffers a seizure on the pitch which needs immediate medical attention right there in front of all the fans and most harrowing, his family members who were in attendance. “This was a difficult time for my family. It must have been hard to see what happened and the reaction of other players and medical staff on the pitch. The days following this, I was like a different person. I was irritable, snappy and tired all the time. I was looked after really well by the medical team at Colomiers and obviously followed all head injury protocols to return to play. I never felt that I wanted to stop playing. Again it was a case of I’m going to get back playing again. It was a mindset, as all athletes have is a desire to carry on.”
Changes After Concussion
Following on from the head injury, Chris suffered a grade 3 concussion. As he has stated the injury caused personality changes, how did this affect him and his loved ones? “ As mentioned, I was like a different person for three or four days following. I remember being tired and having numerous naps. I wasn’t aware so much of being snappy and angry, being told by my family how my personality changed was a real surprise. W e had a house full at the time with my parents, aunty and uncle all staying with us so I had a lot of support. They knew it wasn’t me so they let me be and helped me how they could.”
French Journey at an End
Many rugby players have moved to France to play with mixed results. Some loved their time in France others could not wait to get back. Looking back now, what is your memory of the experience? “France didn’t go too well rugby wise but the lifestyle, the weather and the general experience of being out there helped with the lack of rugby I was getting. At the same time, it was hard being away from family. Again not playing very much, by the end of my contract I found myself in a similar situation as before at Cardiff Blues.”
Back to the UK with Bedford Blues
An opportunity to join Bedford Blues came his way, how did he find the club and the difference from playing in France? Also after leaving Bedford, Chris moved onto play for Merthyr RFC on a semi- professional level back in Wales, what were his experiences?
“I spent two of the most enjoyable seasons at Bedford Blues. On the back of a rocky few years in France, Bedford really allowed me to enjoy my rugby again. The whole family noticed a change in me. I noticed it myself, I was the happiest I’d been in a long time. More recently, in Merthyr, it’s been slightly different. As I was working alongside playing for the first time, it’s been a hard transition. Days are long compared to the schedule of a professional player. I’ve found adjusting to that hard.”
“After Bedford, I fell into a job at a recruitment agency as a consultant. After a few months of this, I realised it wasn’t for me, but had nothing else at the time. So I spent four months dreading every morning having to get up and go to the office which really took its toll on my family and me, by the end I was probably the most down I’ve ever been. The only time I was remotely happy was Friday nights as that was the longest time before I had to go back to work. Having said that, I’m hugely appreciative of the company, Mech Tech Professionals for taking a chance on me and giving me a shot. ”
“Luckily, an opportunity came up as a WRU Hub Officer in a school in Cardiff. I managed to get an interview, and I stressed like mad preparing for it. I managed to get it, and after receiving the phone call to say I was successful, I cried. It was such a relief to know I was out of the office job and back into something I love.”
Chris Czekaj the Coach?
Unfortunately, a rugby career does not go on forever. What are the plans and ambitions for the future after the playing career comes to an end? “ I’m looking for a backs coach (player/coach) role in Cardiff. I’ve coached a lot with various clubs, schools and age groups over the last few years. But I haven’t had a group of players for a full season as yet. As well as being a Rugby Development Officer for the WRU in Bishop of Llandaff High School, I feel a senior coaching role would benefit me hugely. My WRU Level 3 in Coaching will be completed before rugby can continue again.”
“Should an opportunity arise in a few years abroad I would massively consider it. France would be an obvious one having lived there and can speak the language to a certain extent. But I’m open to anywhere, to be honest.”
Chris Czekaj Greatest XV
Over a great career, Chris has played with countless fantastic players at club and international level. What would be the greatest XV he has played with?
Chris Czekaj XV
15 – Ben Blair
14 – Leigh Halfpenny
13 – Jamie Robinson
12 – Marc Stcherbina
11 – Tom James
10 – Ceri Sweeney
9 – Mike Phillips
8- Xavier Rush
7 – Martyn Williams
6 – Sam Warburton
5 – Alun Wyn Jones
4 – Paul Tito
3 – Fa’ao Filise
2 – Matthew Rees
1 – Gethin Jenkins
Thanks to Chris for agreeing to the interview with Looseheadz. It has been a fascinating insight to see how he has overcome challenges that have arisen with great support around him, and how positive he is now and for the future. Motivating for us all and we wish him the very best of luck in his future endeavors and if there are rugby clubs out there looking for a player/backs coach I am sure Chris would be interested in discussing with you. Those clubs with genuine offers, Chris can be contacted at his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org