Alex Keay Exclusive: 'It was hard to walk away - but it came to the stage where it was the right time'

Alex Keay is back at Preston Grasshoppers and he has also launched a new venture called Sporting Gap Years
©Mike Craig

Alex Keay has no regrets.

Almost 12 months ago, Durham University's 14-13 defeat against the University of Exeter in the BUCS Super Rugby Championship final turned out to be his last game at the helm of the Palatinate, but he says there have been no thoughts of "any unfinished business."

Although Durham clinched the BUCS Super Rugby league title, it wasn't a fairytale double-winning campaign last term.

Keay began this season working alongside interim coach Simon Culley to ensure his departure after 13 years at Durham was a smooth transition before his retirement was officially announced in January.

But those who have come across Keay will know rugby is his life, and he wasn't about to step away from the game completely.

While some might feel drained after experiencing the relentless cycle of the university game, the fire still burns bright for Keay and at the beginning of February, he returned "home" to take up the role as Director of Rugby of National Two North club Preston Grasshoppers.

Having originally coached the Lancashire outfit two decades ago, he admits it felt like the right moment for him to move back to Lightfoot Green and it has coincided with a Hoppers revival.

After Christmas, Preston looked set to be embroiled in a relegation battle but four wins from their last seven games has seen them beat the drop.

In fact, they have impressively collected 25 points over the last two months, and it is a stat which elicits a trademark chuckle from Keay followed by a response of: "I like being a winner!"

Keay's impact has been obvious and his passion for developing teams and players is unquestionable. It will come as no surprise then that the former Saracens captain is now combining his role at Preston with a new venture, Sporting Gap Years, which aims to offer adults (18-30 years old) living in the UK the opportunity to play rugby in either Australia, New Zealand or South Africa whilst gaining huge life experiences.

"It came about when I was at Durham partly because there were several students who said they wanted a year out and wanted to do a bit of travelling, and hopefully then be ready for BUCS Super Rugby or whatever level they want to go into," Keay explains.

"A double-headed thing came out of that. Go travelling and go and enjoy yourself but if you're going to do some rugby, do it properly. Go and play for a proper club. Go and be involved in a proper set-up. Go where it will develop you as a player. It is not just about rocking up without a plan and hoping something will fall together.

"The second thing was I think we [Durham] were encouraging it a little bit. Gap years worked really well for us. We just found that lads weren't ready for BUCS Super Rugby coming in as an 18-year-old fresher.

"Having a year out in one of the venues - South Africa, New Zealand, Australia - they are kind of pretty unforgiving places so you are going to have to learn and go into a tough environment but that is the whole point so you come out of the end of that year having had an amazing experience. If you're at the Sharks for example, training on the same pitch as Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth will only make you come back a better player and ready to play.

"If you're going to go there, you really want to make the most of that opportunity. That is what we are trying to do. Maximise that opportunity."

Since leaving Durham, it might sound like Keay has had his 'foot to the floor' but there has been time for him to reflect on what he achieved in the student game.

Five BUCS Championship titles as well as various BUCS 7s honours and two recent BUCS Super Rugby league crowns speak for themselves while Durham alumni such as Josh Beaumont, Sean Robinson and Fitz Harding were all coached by Keay during their time at the university.

"It was hard to walk away," Keay says. "I just came to the stage where it was the right time to step away.

"I'd achieved everything I could achieve. We'd won the BUCS Super Rugby league title twice. We'd won the Sevens again and it wasn't about bragging and saying we'd won loads of things, but it was more about knowing it was the right time to say; 'I am not going to achieve much more now.'

"When we won the league last time [March 2022], that night, I sat there and reflected and thought maybe that was the right time to go. I didn't take it too seriously and then a month later, we won the Sevens and I thought it was the right time then.

"I had my hip operated on last May so I wanted to wait to see how I felt after that. I didn't want to rush into making a decision. I wanted it to be the right decision for me and for Durham University.

"I once met a professional football manager. I won't mention his name but he did say to me, it is the trick in any sport - know when to go. Just know when it is the right time for you and it felt like the right time at Durham. Durham will always be massively in my heart. I will massively support Durham in everything they do and I hope that they are pleased with what I have done for them."

The heartbreak of last year's Championship final loss to Exeter is something we don't dwell on but instead, Keay focuses on the experience of becoming back-to-back league winners and relates it to this current campaign.

This season's BSR final will take place on April 19th at Saracens' StoneX Stadium but Keay's beloved Durham won't be there after they lost to Cardiff University in the quarter-finals.

There was, rightly, a lot of interest around Durham in 2021-22 given they were the "team to beat" and this year that tag belongs to Loughborough who clinched their first BSR title last month.

"Right now is always a busy time in the season," Keay says. "If you haven't won the league, it is now another opportunity to get something on the mantlepiece, isn't it?

"We always said winning the league was the most important thing. It has to be the acid test of your season because you are doing it consistently over 18 games.

"When you have won the league, it becomes a different thing and in both cases when we won it recently back-to-back, Fowlesy [Ben Fowles] who was captain and Fred [Davies] who was captain, we had some interesting conversations in many respects! Honestly, I think we lost them for about four days after they won the league! They went absolutely hell for leather and deserved to!

"You get a break week before the knockouts and we said; 'What do we want to do?' I remember with Freddie and Ben's team, Ben's team never got a chance [to experience the Championship] because of Covid but with Fred, we sat there and said if we are going to go for the Championship, let's do it properly.

"If we are not going to do it, don't feel any shame in it because they had won the league and I couldn't be prouder of them. Fred came back in with the leadership group and said; 'Keasey, we're in. We want to go and win this thing so let's try and do it.'

"Literally, and this is bizarre for students, they didn't drink for three-and-a-half weeks! You have to have that conversation I'm afraid when you've won a league.

"I was speaking to some of the Loughborough lads and they had said they had had similar conversations which you have to do. It is not a slant on us not looking at the knockouts as important but after winning something, it is really hard to adjust and go again. Unless the players buy into that, you're knackered. It [winning the Championship title] is not going to happen."

Loughborough look as though they are 'buying into' a possible opportunity to win the league and cup double after defeating Nottingham in the last eight last week to set up a semi-final tie with the University of Bath this Wednesday.

And while the hustle and bustle of BUCS Super Rugby continues, Keay reveals he is enjoying the less 'full-on' nature of his work with Preston and with Sporting Gap Years: "You do feel like there was never a break! Students are incredibly great to work with but they are also incredibly demanding! I once had one student ring me on Christmas Day to talk about his game and you kind of think; 'This is getting quite challenging!"

Nevertheless, Keay's desire to be the best hasn't vanished. While the expectations at Durham and Preston might differ - with one gunning for the title each year and the other aiming for stability - Keay has not allowed himself to think about achieving just the bare minimum.

"It is not in my DNA to settle! Hopefully that will rub off on the boys at Hoppers!" Keay laughs. "I think that is kind of part of the longer plan that we want to try and put some trophies in the cupboard to show everyone Preston isn't a yo-yo club anymore.

"We were in a mess [just after Christmas] and it has been nice to get out of that. Full credit to the players. They have been absolutely outstanding. There is a hell of a way to go, but we have made some really good strides."

Preston have two games remaining before that particular part of Keay's day-to-day schedule can go into hibernation for a couple of months, but Sporting Gap Years is something he hopes will go from strength to strength as he continues to help aspiring players achieve their potential.

It raises one final talking point: Is developing players an aspect of the sport Keay enjoys the most?

"Sport is about memories. It always is," he says. "Doesn't matter if you're at Durham, Preston, going on a gap year. If you come away with amazing memories, we used to say to the lads at Durham like Beaumont's year at Twickenham, then that is what it is about.

"What you will get is you will walk across the street 40 years later, and you won't need to say anything to each other. You will just look at each other across the other side of the street and know you had that memory together whether that is rugby, travelling or both. If that happens, you know you have done something worthwhile."

To find out more about Sporting Gap Years, click HERE