chris callawayA random follow on @rugbysaracens sparked my interest – Chris Callaway @TheSaxonCoach – Chairman of the Saxons Sevens which runs both men and women’s squads.  That short bio left me wanting to know more about both the man and the Saxons and I saw an opportunity to interview someone who turned out to be a very interesting man with a total passion for rugby!

I travelled to Sanderstead to watch Old Mid-Whitgiftians play – Chris was appointed as Director of Rugby in June of this year.  Unfortunately Old Mids lost but it was a beautiful afternoon and I saw 71 points scored, so not all bad! I did wonder why I could only see Chris in the background; turned out he was serving a Paul Ince style sideline ban, oops.

So, we adjourned to a quiet corner in the bar, beer for Chris, tea for me. Having never interviewed anyone before I was slightly unsure of where to start and we jumped around a bit I must confess. But, let’s see if I can put things into some sort of order.

Firstly I learnt something very interesting about where a person is born as far as a UK passport is concerned – seems if 2 generations are born outside of the UK the 3rd generation can’t hold a UK passport – interesting!  So in spite of living in various exotic countries such as The Congo, Zaire and the Ivory Coast, Chris was born in England.  Between the ages of 3 and 7 he attended an American school in Egypt.  At the age of 7 he came back to the UK and encountered rugby for the first time.

As a boarder at Tunbridge School Chris was able to spend time on his passion as a sprint hurdler – a skill that was to prove useful as a rugby player. Now on meeting Chris the first thing that struck me was goodness he’s tall! He explained that at 13 he was 5ft 3 by 16, 6ft 6, now that is an amazing growth rate and one that was to prove a problem.  With his sprinting background Chris played on the wing at Tunbridge School; he explained about the make-up of the buildings with their narrow courtyards and how impromptu games of touch rugby took place between 5 or 6 boys.  Tunbridge is a school that has produced the likes of Ben Ransom of Saracens and Luke Wallace of Harelquins. Graham Gales Chris’s coach who is still at the school now uses a fenced in area to encourage the footwork such an environment produces. It explains for me some of the reason Ben shone so much in the 7’s tournament earlier in the year.

Now Chris had been using his pace on the wing at Tunbridge School but a season that saw 7 of the first choice 2nd row injured had the words ‘time to man up’ thrown at him.  And a place in the forwards, surely the more natural home of a man standing at 6ft 6 was found.  After taking his GCSE’s Chris changed school and set off to Hurtwood House School, he changed his position choice by telling them he was a no8 having never played there!  However that was no handicap and Chris became 1st team captain and was picked to play for the Surrey 7’s set up.  This was to start his love affair with the fast paced 7’s game; Clive Coulson of Wasps spotted Chris and scouted him.  The game plan for the Wasps 7’s team was for Chris to make the space to release the wingers.  At 19 Chris suffered from a life and career threatening condition; compartment syndrome; a blood clot formed in the muscle in his leg this had to be removed by an operation and put him out of action for a year.  Chris put this down to his incredible body change, one that saw him grow upwards but also weight wise took him from 12 to 18 stone.

In spite of this situation Richmond signed Chris as a 2nd row; unfortunately a collapsed scrum in a pre-season game caused a frontal dislocation of his shoulder tearing ligaments and muscles.  The injury had to be treated on the NHS and took 3 years to put right.  Chris took no part in rugby for 2 of those years, going to University in Leeds to study Event Management, as part of his rehabilitation he put hours in swimming for 8 months and ended up with a stronger shoulder than many!  And so Chris started playing rugby again for the Leeds Met Uni 3rd team; there had been a tradition of each level of team being picked on seniority rather than playing ability.  Chris as coach now of the 3rd team challenged this notion and set his team against the 1st team; they won 46 to 10 and no doubt changed the selection process!

On leaving Uni Chris returned to the South and played No 8 at Sevenoaks in a bid to protect his shoulder; he also coached the Academy.  In a bid to be involved at a higher level he returned to Richmond where he played for 2 years, here he was knocked out cold for 20 minutes with an injury that was to finally stop his playing days.  Geoff Richards the Director of Rugby offered Chris the position of Coach of the Saxons, Richmonds development squad.  From this scenario, 5 years ago, the Saxons 7’s set up grew as the players involved grew weary of never being considered for the first 7’s team. The squad goes from strength to strength and now includes players from across the Championship and National One teams.  The original 18 players still make a social tour overseas annually.

The Saxons women’s team started during the summer and to the team with players ranging from 19 to 42 have reached the final of every competition they’ve entered.  Over the summer 150 women played and next summer Lindsay Topham – Manager of the Saxons Ladies and the rest of the team will be setting up the first women only 7’s tournament to take place in July or August.

Both the men and women will be going to the 7’s tournament in Las Vegas in January 2014 and I for one will be looking to see just how well they do! At the moment the tours are funded by sponsors, goodwill, the players and prize money a lift in their profile will hopefully see more sponsors willing to help!  An interesting fact – the prize money in Vegas for the winners is £5000 (I think ££) for the men and a big fat zero for the women!

So my first interview done and dusted, it was very interesting to meet a man who clearly has such a huge passion for the game of rugby!  I wish Chris Callaway and his Saxons (and Old Mid-Whitgiftians) set up the best of luck in the future! Give him a follow on Twitter if your interest has been sparked too!

You can find out more about the Saxon Sevens here.