Sharp Chuter: King George talks about fans, ninjas and old age as he prepares for career landmark
23:47 GMT, 4 May 2012
It's been some week for George Chuter. On Tuesday, the Leicester hooker received a club award for outstanding service and on Saturday he becomes the first player to make a 250th Premiership appearance. In his book, these landmarks are twin imposters – greeted cautiously, with wry humour.
The 35-year-old Londoner is in his 12th season in the East Midlands and today the massed hordes of Tigers fans in a capacity crowd at Welford Road will acclaim his achievement, before the home side set about savaging Bath to claim a home semi-final. But Chuter isn’t anticipating or craving a fuss.
‘Yeah, there’s going to be a parade through the city,’ he quipped, when asked if there would be any special measures to recognise his feat of endurance. ‘No, I don’t think there’s much planned. I wouldn’t expect anything. We’ve got a big game to concentrate on.’
Going strong: Chuter will make his 250th Premiership appearance on Saturday
Awareness of the 250-game milestone has crept up on him in recent weeks, but he is not about to dwell on it or savour it, not just yet, not while there’s work to do. ‘I don’t tick off the games as I go and keep note of the tally myself,’ he said.
‘Once I get a chance to reflect I guess it’s quite a significant achievement. It’s not something you aim for in your career, you just want to play the next game, win the next game, win the next trophy or play for England, stuff like that. You don’t think about totting up games. It just makes me feel old in all honesty!’
As for the award, that too prompts a light-hearted reaction. ‘Outstanding service – it’s the old-man award,’ he said.
‘They basically give it to everyone the year before they retire, or that’s what they think…! It’s one of those awards you don’t want to win because it means you’re getting on a bit, but it’s still a great honour.
'In the past, people wouldn’t accept it because they thought it was jinxed and they would get injured the next year. We used to have a shield with all the names on and guys didn’t want to touch it, but now a sponsor gives us a nice watch instead.’
Title challenge: Chuter hopes to be competing for the Premiership trophy at Twickenham later this month
For all the matches he has gone through at the sharp end of the forward battle since a debut for Saracens at the start of the 1997-98 season, Chuter has an incredible ability to recall details. Take that debut for example. He insists even now that he was robbed of a scoring start to his career in the top division.
‘In my first year at Sarries, I sat on the bench five or six times for league games but didn’t get on the field,’ he said.
‘The year after, I was on the bench for the first game up at Sale and I got on for about the last 25 minutes, for my first appearance. It was at Heywood Road, up against Steve Diamond (now chief executive at Sale).
'I scored a try actually, but it was disallowed – it was a drive-over maul from a five-yard lineout. I was on the floor but it was before the days of TV replays so the ref said I was held up and we had a scrum five. Never mind…’
Power force: Chuter in action for Leicester
Chuter left Saracens in 2000 and took a break. There was a new contract on offer but he felt stale and spent time in America and Australia, to re-charge the batteries and regain a hunger for his chosen profession. He considered playing social rugby Down Under and working there for a year, but instead an agent friend had – without his knowledge – been speaking to clubs at home and Leicester took him on.
Since then, he has played an increasingly prominent part as the club have won the domestic title five times, and the Heineken Cup and Anglo-Welsh Cup twice each.
Final push: Chuter wants Leicester to make the Premiership final
With the benefit of hindsight, he is glad he has spent so much of his career with the Tigers, but he has had periods of doubt. ‘There have been some dark times here,’ said Chuter. ‘Around the time of the 2003 World Cup I ended up as third choice for a while, after starting the season as first choice.
‘Previously I’d been starting for Saracens, playing for England ‘A’, stuff like that, then suddenly I was having to cope with being down the pecking order. It was a setback, that’s all, but those sort of things test you and you find out a bit about yourself. My dad died that year as well so it was a difficult time professionally and personally.
‘At that time, if I’d had a chance to go somewhere else I probably would have gone. I wasn’t here to be a third choice.
'Then in mid-season Dean (Richards) got sacked and John Wells took over. For his first game in charge I was third choice again.
'We were up at Sale on a Friday night, it was lashing down with rain and freezing cold and I was acting as a ball boy on the far side of the field, keeping the ball dry for Nobby (Dorian West) to throw in. I was thinking, “What am I doing here”.
‘But after that game, we had the Barbarians on a Wednesday evening at Welford Road and Wellsy took me to one side and said, “You are starting, this is a chance for you, this is a trial match for you”.
'I played well and managed to bounce back. Although I’ve had a couple more ups and downs since, that’s probably about as low as I’ve been but those times in the doldrums make you appreciate what you’ve got. It gives you a bit of perspective.’
Having had to work hard for his chances at club level, the same was true of Chuter’s Test career, which began just before his 30th birthday. That debut was in Sydney against Australia and there is a neat symmetry as his last appearance was there too, as a replacement on the night England won 21-20. ‘If that is the last Test I play in, it wasn’t a bad place to finish.’
Early days: Chuter in action for Saracens during his early days with Michael Lynagh and Tony Diprose
The Wallabies were again the opposition for his personal international highlight – the shock World Cup quarter-final victory in Marseille founded on a scrum onslaught led by Andrew Sheridan. It was so low-key in the build-up because no-one expected us to get anywhere near them,’ he said. ‘In fact, guys were talking to their wives back home saying, “I’ll see you Monday”.
‘It was almost comic-book stuff. They were talking themselves up all week in the press so to go out there and turn them over was fantastic. It was one of those games where everything we planned to do came off and even though the score was tight, we were the much better team on the day. Stirling Mortlock missed his kick and the Gods were with us.’
*On the edge of their seats: Each of the matches was independently scored for its excitement levels by a former England rugby international. The most exciting match of the experiment was deemed to be Leicester Tigers narrow victory (30-25) over local rivals Northampton Saints in December 2011.
For all the dedication needed to stay in shape for elite rugby, Chuter has broadened his repertoire beyond training and playing the game. An online diary for the club website has morphed into a regular, off-the-wall column in the matchday programme, featuring historical trivia and satire and deliberately ‘embellished’ tales from inside the camp.
He also describes himself on Twitter as a ‘ninja fan’ and said: ‘I’d like to be one but I’m probably a bit heavy and slow!’
He is fit for today’s purpose, which is to help see off Bath in the Tigers’ last regular-season game.
The big crowd will help. While a season-long experiment by Premiership sponsors Aviva to find the league's most passionate fans ranked Leicester’s down in sixth, behind first-placed Gloucester and local rivals Northampton, Chuter values their raucous contribution, saying: ‘This game is sold out and when Welford Road is full, the crowd seem to make as much noise as a full house at the Millennium Stadium, which has the best atmosphere I’ve experienced.
'They are passionate about their rugby and knowledgeable as well. They will let you know if you’re c**p and let you know if you’re good.’
Today, they will surely let Chuter know that’s he good, on his red-letter day. He won’t need a parade to feel the affection.
Aviva are proud title sponsors of Premiership Rugby. George and Leicester Tigers will next week be competing for a place in the Aviva Premiership Final. Tickets for the Aviva Premiership Final on 26 May at Twickenham are available at www.ticketmaster.co.uk