Dynamic with the rugby ball in hand and known for putting in big hits in defence, Alix Popham was a fearsome force for club and country. Born in Newport in 1979, the Gwent man enjoyed an illustrious playing career that spanned over a decade, during which time he became one of only a handful of Welsh internationals to play top level rugby in Wales, England and France.
His professional days began at Newport RFC where he was part of the Principality Cup winning team. In 2002, he emulated this success at Leeds Tykes (now Yorkshire Carnegie) where he lifted the Powergen Cup in the 2004/5 season.
Popham returned to Wales and turned out 62 times for the Llanelli Scarlets before finishing his career deep in the heart of French rugby country at Brive-La-Gaillarde. The first Welshman to lead a top-flight French team, he captained the Limousin club during their Heineken Cup campaign in 2009.
Alix also won 33 caps for Wales and was part of the 2008 team that beat England at Twickenham - the first victory of what was to be a fine Grand Slam campaign. In 2011, at the age of 31, Alix was forced to retire from the game following reconstructive surgery on his shoulder.
These days the former backrow forward’s life is far removed from the hectic routine of professional rugby. The Essential Cyclist spoke to him about the challenges of retirement, and how more needs to be done to help players prepare for the one guarantee in this notoriously unpredictable game.
The Essential Cyclist (TEC): Hi Alex, you had a great career. What were some of the highlights for you?
Alix Popham (AP): Definitely winning the Principality cup with Newport and then the Powergen Cup with Leeds Tykes. I won my first cap for Wales against Australia in 2003 which was a great moment, and I loved both World Cups that I was involved in, even though we left them a bit early. The Scarlets’ back to back wins against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup were fantastic. It’s all been topped off by experiencing rugby life out in France and having my kids learn French.
TEC: As a player, did you think about your future beyond professional rugby?
AP: I didn’t have specific ambitions but I was always mindful to make the most of my time. I tried to keep in contact with sponsors and I was keen to get professional experience. While still playing for Wales I set up an agency with a law firm and a PR company in Cardiff. I also opened a property portfolio and set up a website renting out accommodation for visitors to the 2010 Ryder Cup in Newport. On the whole I had lots of things going, but I enjoyed it - the networking and having interests outside rugby.
TEC: Did retirement from rugby come as a shock to the system?
AP: It was strange - rugby structures your life so completely. The week builds up to a game, you recover on Sunday and then it starts all over again on Monday. Maybe it’s why I’m a bit OCD now (laughs), but that appreciation for structure has stayed with me. So much can be taken from professional sport into the world of work but there’s lots to learn too. I have to say I miss the changing-room banter, though.
TEC: Were there formal structures to help prepare you for retirement while you were playing?
AP: Not overly, no. There were individuals who would emphasise how valuable our time as players was, but generally I think a lot is taken for granted across the board. There was a City & Guilds coaching qualification available when I was at Newport and I completed that, but beyond that there were no structured pathways to help players work out what they’d like to do after pro sport. I think more emphasis needs to be put on opportunities that can let players use their down time to best effect. It shouldn’t just be left to individuals concerned, rather something could be worked into contracts to make players commit to work experience in a professional office-based capacity, or in whatever field might interest them.
TEC: What line of work did you go into after rugby?
AP: When I retired I started working with a firm that specialises in hip and knee replacement surgery. I was trained for 3 months with certain products then I would go into operating theatres and give advice to surgeons regarding product sizing options and other elements of suitability depending on the patient. I needed a bit more flexibility in my life so I started working for myself, creating my property website and doing some coaching. I was busy but my hours were all over the place. Then I spoke to Andy and Steve Moore at Athletic Career Transition (ACT) and they put me in touch with Fresh Business Thinking and things are going really well. I’ve done some punditry too, which is a big commitment but it’s very enjoyable.
TEC: What advice would you give to current professional rugby players regarding their career after sport?
AP: Just try to get some experience outside of rugby. Maybe pick a handful of jobs you think you’d like and try to organise a work placement - get an idea of the kind of work environments that appeals to you. Look into training opportunities, distance learning, educational courses - anything that will strengthen your CV. Obviously, you don’t want it to take over your life, the rugby has to come first but it’s healthy to be interested in life beyond the white lines of the playing field.
TEC: What role does sport play in your life now?
AP: I do a lot of cycling and cross-fit. Without rugby there’s less need to focus on gym work and weights now, especially with my shoulder injury. I just try to do as much as I can and stay active with like-minded people, it keeps me young; I feel much better when I’ve got some training in.
TEC: Finally, we can’t let you go without rating Wales’ chances going into in the RWC.
AP: I thought they did well in the Autumn Internationals - we were amazing against New Zealand. I won’t say we were unlucky but it’s great to show we can regularly compete at the highest level. If we get our game plan right we can win, like we did against South Africa. We have to take that momentum into the World Cup and have faith in our tactics; you can be sure that the ‘Boks will be one of the strongest teams and this gives our latest win over them added significance. I think we’ll reach the knockout stages, at which point anything can happen.
TEC: Thanks Alix that’s great, all the very best with your career after rugby.