Ollie Chessum Exclusive: ‘Last year was a bit of a whirlwind from start to finish’

Ollie Chessum has grown into being one of Leicester Tigers' key players and is a vice-captain for the first time this Friday night
©David Howlett

Coming into the third round of Heineken Champions Cup action, Ollie Chessum and his Leicester Tigers teammates have experienced back-to-back losses in the Gallagher Premiership and will be looking to get back to winning ways against Clermont.

Playing the French side this Friday night at the Marcel Michelin, Chessum speaks just three days removed from Leicester’s 45-26 loss to Newcastle Falcons, the 22-year-old crossing the whitewash as the current English champions got a try scoring bonus point.

Just their third game since the departure of Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield to take on roles with the England national team, while an injury crisis at Mattioli Woods Welford Road has contributed to this slight dip in form as interim head coach, Richard Wigglesworth, has adjusts to the top job.

It was in Borthwick’s last job as Tigers head coach that Tigers last came up against Clermont. Ending that game as 23-16 victors in the East Midlands, in Wigglesworth’s first game as interim head coach the side picked up a win over Gloucester before heavy defeats to Sale Sharks.

Chessum bares the scar of Saturday’s loss quite literally, the forward wearing a cut on his left cheek on Tuesday as he and his teammates prepare for their trip to France.

“We know we are only ever one or two per cent and we have had small fixes,” Chessum told TRU. “Wiggy has been real hot on details we have missed, and we have lost a lot of big moments in the games that usually we win.

“We are just going real hot on attention to detail, making sure we are one or two per cent better in those areas and just driving that really.”

Heading back into Champions Cup action, Chessum says that he and his teammates are planning to take on Clermont with the same mindset they take into every game. 

Currently third in Pool B, a win this weekend would go a long way to securing Tigers’ place in the playoffs prior to the visit of Ospreys the following Friday night.

In the past two seasons, there have been plenty of encounters between the two sides, the two clubs going toe-to-toe with one another in the Champions Cup’s round of 16 last April.

Beating their opposition across two games, Chessum was red carded on the home leg and is  anticipating a titanic clash this Friday night at one of the most storied venues in European club rugby.

“We have come up against them quite a lot in a short period of time,” he said. “[We] Played them twice last year, home and away, going to do the same now and we spoke about it in the week; their stadium is an incredible place to play.

“I’ve not experienced many crowds like it and there is boys like myself who got to experience it last year. 

“There is lads in the squad who are new that won’t have, and it is a huge opportunity for us off the back of what we have had the last couple of weeks, to go and really take it to a big side like Clermont and play in front of such a great audience would be a really special opportunity.”

Named as starting blindside flanker for the game, Chessum will be a vice-captain in Clermont for the first time, along with Freddie Steward, while Ben Youngs skippers the side at scrum-half. 

A much-changed side from the one that took on Newcastle Falcons last weekend. Dan Kelly and Matt Scott will continue their partnership in midfield, Harry Simmons maintaining his position on the wing, while Charlie Atkinson’s inclusion at full-back sees Steward shift to the wing and Handre Pollard will pull the strings at fly-half in the only other change to the backs.

Charlie Clare keeps his starting slot at hooker, while James Whitcombe and Joe Heyes move into the front-row and Harry Wells and Cameron Henderson complete the front five. To complete the starting side, Wales international Ollie Chessum starts at openside flanker and Sean Jansen gets his first appearance in Europe.

‘I am very fortunate to be here’

In his fourth season of professional rugby, Chessum is rise has been impressive to say the least. Born in Lincolnshire and progressing through the county setup and gained the attention of Leicester after making England Counties U18 at the conclusion of the 2018/19 season.

Having spent a period as part of Tigers youth academy before not being offered a senior academy contract at 16, the forward’s return to the setup was short-lived following a trail, being told there was not room for him to join the group on a full-time basis.

Instead, Leicester would put the teenager in touch with Nottingham in the Championship, where Chessum would star at Lady Bay and get selected for England U20s before Covid-19 brought life to a grinding halt.

Chessum's first season as a Tigers regular ended in Gallagher Premiership success
©David Howlett

“My route, I think, has helped me,” Chessum said. “In terms of experiencing different things that people my age wouldn’t have. I was playing Championship rugby at 19, a lot of lads my age were in academies, were playing academy rugby and A-League stuff.

“I was playing every week in a full-time environment at Nottingham and that gave me opportunities that maybe I wouldn’t have got here if I was signed from the academy. I’m really proud of the journey to get where I am now.

“Without every little step that I have had, I wouldn’t be anywhere near what I am now. I am very fortunate to be here.”

Fast forward three and a half years and Chessum’s younger brother, Lewis, is also calling Lady Bay his temporary home. Similarly to his brother, the 19-year-old is thriving in the Championship and will take part in the U20 Six Nations in the weeks to come, the academy lock having made four appearances for Tigers in the Premiership Rugby Cup this season.

Playing in the Championship seemingly came easy to Ollie, who started to impress from the outset and was recruited by Leicester midway through the season to return to Tigers full-time. 

It was during his time with Nottingham that the second tier was told of the funding cuts it would face for the years to come, the league playing a pivotal role in Chessum’s personal development and set him on a path different to the one that he expected, having originally thought he would be joining his family's agricultural trailer manufacturing business.

“I’ll be honest, before I joined, I didn’t know an awful lot about Championship Rugby,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for. I had a meeting with Neil Fowkes, their head coach at the time, they invited me to a preseason trial period, and they ended up allowing me to stay for the year.

“I never had any expectations coming off the back of that year. Leaving school, I was expecting to go and work for my family business. I just saw it [Nottingham] as an opportunity to give it a crack and see where I can take it.

“Fortunately, it has worked out alright so far. I never really had any massive expectations going in there, tried to enjoy it and take it for what it was.”

‘Being injured is never anything you want’

Taking part in his fourth season with Leicester Tigers, Chessum is one of a number of young players that was the catalyst of the club’s success last season. Capable of playing in the back-row and lock forward, it is not hard to see why Borthwick liked the youngster from Lincolnshire.

Only making a handful of appearances to see out the Covid-19 disrupted 2019/20 and the 2020/21 season, it was last season that Chessum became a regular. Helping the club to an unbeaten start to the season which ultimately set the tone for a successful campaign, Chessum became a form staple of Borthwick’s Leicester.

Growing with each and every opportunity he got to put on a Leicester shirt, the 22-year-old was rewarded with his first international call-up. Ex-England coach Eddie Jones handed Chessum his debut in last year’s Guinness Six Nations Championship with a 16 minute cameo off the bench in England’s 33-0 win over Italy in Rome. 

Gaining his second cap as a replacement against France, in the summer Chessum was on his way to Australia to represent England down under after helping Leicester to an 11th Premiership title.

Taking part in each match of the Test series, the versatile forward even earned his first start for England in the deciding third Test and played an influential role in the 21-17 victory in Sydney.

“Last year was a bit of a whirlwind from start to finish for me,” Chessum said. “The year before, I hadn’t played much first team rugby, so my big goal for that year was to play first-team rugby and I achieved that. I was really happy with that, and the Premiership win was incredible.

“It was something I definitely won’t forget, but it all happened very quickly. We won on the Saturday at Twickenham, and on the Tuesday we were on a flight to Australia. Then we were playing out there. We got a good few weeks off to reflect on that, but I don’t think it has all really sunk in.

“The nature of what we’re doing is you do one thing and move straight onto the next. So, obviously really proud of what we as a group and as a team achieved last year and what I was able to achieve individually, but it all just seems ages ago now. We’re well in the mix of this season.”

Back into the fray with Leicester for round two of the new Premiership season, immediately Chessum’s versatility came to the fore once again. Marking his return to the matchday 23 with an outing at openside flanker, a week later the 22-year-old would be at lock, his performances again leading to an international call-up.

Due to an injury picked up while in England camp, Chessum would not add to his collection of caps and instead faced two months on the touchline.

“It is frustrating,” Chessum said. “As a player you want as much momentum – you thrive off the back of good performances and confidence, that kind of thing. At the same time, it offered an opportunity for me to properly recover from quite a long season of rugby.

“I was carrying a few niggles anyway, which I was then able to get sorted. One of my goals was to progress off the field physically and that gave me a two month block to attack that sort of department.

“Being injured is never anything you want, but it is never a complete negative. There is always opportunities to get better in other fields. So that’s how I try to look at it.”

Thanks to his performances for Leicester, Chessum has won five caps for England to date
©David Howlett

As someone standing at over 200cm tall and well over 100kg, physicality is inherent with the 22-year-old’s game, but it is the forward's long-term future that prompted him to prioritise his physical attributes.

“At the start of last season, I was very much playing in the back-row. Having conversations with Steve, who was head coach [of Leicester] at the time, I wanted to make that jump into the second-row, but that required a bit more bulk and a bit more weight behind the front-row.

“It’s the nature of that role in the scrum that you have got to provide a bit of weight behind, and I was a bit more on the slighter side towards the start of the season. It was a good opportunity for me to throw some weight on.”

With Borthwick naming his first England squad on Monday morning, it is expected that the 43-year-old will select a significant number of his former East Midlands charges for the Six Nations Championship.

Since taking charge of Tigers in 2020, Borthwick has seen a number of young players get opportunities in international jerseys. Freddie Steward is the undisputed England full-back, while Jack van Poortvliet is a regular option at scrum-half alongside 100-cap Ben Youngs and Guy Porter earned his debut caps over the summer.

Having had conversations with Borthwick about where his long-term future may lie, it does not seem out of the question that Chessum is well in the running to pack down alongside Maro Itoje in the second-row and become a regular as the 2023 Rugby World Cup continues to approach.

With a trip to Clermont between now and Monday, Chessum is understandably focussing on the task at hand before any thoughts of England can come to the front of his mind.

“It is a huge honour to be selected in an England squad and it is something I want to do,” Chessum said. “Whenever I am here, my focus is fully on playing well for my club, playing well for Leicester Tigers, and whatever happens after that, happens.

“If I get given the opportunity, of course I’ll take it with both hands. Until I get the nod, my focus is fully on playing here.”