Ex-professional rugby player coaches Estonian team during Army deployment

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A former professional rugby player and current serving soldier has begun training the Estonian rugby team during a deployment to the country.

Corporal Chris Budgen, who has played for clubs which include Exeter Chiefs and Northampton Saints, is currently stationed in Tapa, more than 80 miles from the Russian border.

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh have been deployed to the Baltic state as part of Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) – established to deter Kremlin aggression.

The 45-year-old, who is originally from New Zealand and has completed tours of Iraq and Afghanistan during his 20 years in the Army, said that although soldiering comes first, he is offering a helping hand on the side.

Cpl Budgen described how the Estonian players are very keen to learn, adding that they give 100% and go 100 miles an hour during their weekly Sunday training sessions.

“It is quite easy to coach because they are so enthusiastic, and they just want to learn. It is quite good you know, they are quite fit boys,” he told the Press Association.

“I think it is something that is a bit of a challenge for myself – going right back to the grassroots, it is purely amateur out here – but they are so keen.”

Watching one of the training sessions which was taking place on an indoor football pitch in the capital Tallinn was Ragnar Toompere, president of the Estonian Rugby Union.

The 41-year-old told said rugby within Estonia is not a sport which is widely played and due to the cold winter conditions this can be a hindrance.

“Our season is from April until November if we are lucky, so (it is) hard to keep consistency in getting people involved,” he said as a thick layer of snow slid off the roof.

Having only established the Estonian Rugby Union 10 years ago, Mr Toompere said they are working to bring it into schools, but face stiff competition from football, volleyball and basketball.

“Rugby has never been a sport in our country, so we have started from roughly zero and it has been a bit of a ride,” he added.

Describing the coaching from Cpl Budgen, he said the former prop is calm but forceful in his approach to imparting his knowledge to the players.

“I think incredible would be on the insulting side in how (good) it is for us (having him coach) – it is absolutely brilliant,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone playing at his level has ever been to Estonia, so from that side it is absolutely amazing.”

Mr Toompere said 5th Battalion The Rifles kicked off the training scheme last summer, helping them to improve their skills and providing coaching.

Quizzed on what Cpl Budgen is like as a coach, Kristjan Kotkas, 31, who plays for and is the president of Tallinn Kalev RFC, said having him is “fantastic”.

“What our guys really like is encouragement – the Estonian nature is more towards that rather than the whip, which tends to backfire sometimes,” he said.

“But he is very supportive and optimistic, and I think the guys really appreciate that. I don’t think there is a coach regionally who is that accomplished in rugby, so we are really in awe.”

Cpl Budgen said with enthusiastic and fit players, plus the right infrastructure, once the sport takes hold properly, Estonia will be a strong rugby-playing country.

“I reckon if they get the funding and the backing, they can go a long way,” he added.

With the three British teams – England, Wales and Scotland, plus Ireland – going head-to-head during a day of Six Nations matches on February 24, Cpl Budgen predicted it will be “pretty tight” when it comes to who will win the competition overall.

Stating how Wales are playing “really well”, he said England “might be a little bit too strong”.

“My heart goes with Wales, it would be good to see the Welsh take it again,” he said.

Pressed on who his money is on, he added: “I would like to say Wales but I just think England has got that little bit of a depth, that little bit stronger.”

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