The return of Alex Cuthbert, the Wales Grand Slam winner who’s back after having his eyes opened in England

The return of Alex Cuthbert, the Wales Grand Slam winner who's back after having his eyes opened in England

Muhammad Ali famously reckoned a man who views the world the same at the age of 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.

Experience: it’s the teacher of all things.

And so to Alex Cuthbert, who has been pencilled in for his Welsh rugby return this weekend, three and a half years after departing the scene for a new chapter with Exeter Chiefs.

He is returning older and wiser, better able to deal with the fickleness of others’ opinions.

When he left Wales in 2018, he told The Sunday Times about his Welsh critics: “Nobody’s ever said anything to my face.

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“Everybody’s got an opinion in Wales because it’s such a small country where rugby is the number one sport.

“I’m lucky enough to have worn that jersey almost 50 times and none of those people who criticise me will ever experience that pressure or the buzz you get from doing it.

“There’s always people who want to put that target on your back and take shots but I’m sure that they’ve got better things to do. I certainly have.

“I’ve played nearly 50 times for Wales. The memories are always there and I’ve given 100% in everything I’ve done. I don’t regret one single thing.

“The past is in the past now. I’m looking to the future. In 10 years people will hopefully talk about Alex Cuthbert in a Wales shirt winning Grand Slams or beating England.”

It was some way to leave.

Cuthbert had been subjected to stinging criticism. One thing no-one could ever accuse him of was lack of effort, but the barbs were frequently unfair. Understandably, he didn’t exactly feel well-disposed to those responsible for them.

That was then, and this is now.

Attending his first Ospreys press conference since returning to Welsh rugby, Cuthbert cut a mature figure, able to put things in perspective.

Of the criticism before he decamped to England, he said: “I would not say it dragged you down.

“I just think I needed a new challenge and target. I went to Exeter and was not reborn but started enjoying my rugby a bit more and did what I was good at.

“That’s all I could control, whereas I guess I was getting a bit frustrated from things that were out of my control.

“I can only do what I can do well and that hopefully puts teams back on the front foot. That’s all I can do. Give 100% effort.”

Cuthbert knows the sweet side of rugby. In his first 29 Tests he scored 15 tries, along the way helping Wales to consecutive Six Nations titles, including a Grand Slam. He became a Test Lion in 2013 and a year later stood out in adversity for Wales on the road against South Africa.

But form comes and goes and Cuthbert’s scoring touch went AWOL at Test level, with just two touchdowns arriving in his next 19 internationals.

It happens.

Looking back, he is able to view the ups and downs of the period with perspective.

“That’s just professional sport,” he says. “You take your highs and the challenge is trying to stay there but sometimes it doesn’t work like that.

“You have bad times where you feel like you can’t do anything right.

“I have learned over the last couple of years about just being resilient, trying to stay in it and fighting for everything. In theory I have not got loads of rugby left. I am 31 and I am just trying to enjoy every moment and experience I am having.”

Many would consider his peak years to be those halcyon days between 2012 and 2014 when he memorably sliced through England’s defence in a record Wales win over the old enemy (30-3 in 2013) and posed problems for almost every team he faced.

Wales wing Alex Cuthbert celebrates as he runs in the decisive try in the 2012 Grand Slam sealing win over Les Bleus at the Millennium Stadium
(Image: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

But he isn’t of the same mind, believing the 2021 Alex Cuthbert model to have the upper hand on the player of eight or so years ago.

“You could say that was my peak, but I probably feel I’m a better player now and a more rounded player,” he says.

“My experience is second to none, and there aren’t too many wings who have done what I’ve done in Wales and then gone to England and then won Europe and the Premiership and then come back.

“Consistency is key, especially at Exeter. If you didn’t know your role or you weren’t in the right place at the right time, there were players coming through and they’d swap you in and out.

“Coming to the Ospreys is just a good experience for me, being an older player.

“I left Wales in my mid-twenties or so, whereas now I’m 31. I feel I have a lot of experience to give going into every game.”

Cuthbert is on record as saying he still has another level to reach, and passing 30 isn’t going to stop him from trying to improve.

“I left Wales probably not the way I wanted in terms of my rugby,” he says.

“Going to Exeter and being in a squad and coaching environment gave me a chance to play to the best of my abilities. I felt I learned an awful lot. Then coming back to a new team and a new environment, you just learn more things. You always learn.

“All the top players say you are always getting better — just seeing the game from a different perspective. There was the likes of Ali Hepher at Exeter, and I’ve come here where I’m seeing a different game-plan through the eyes of Brock James, how the Ospreys want to play and attack. So it’s exciting, really.

“I’m just looking forward to getting out there, getting the ball in hand and hopefully doing what I do well.”

The former Cardiff Blues player avoided any bold declarations that he is going to mark his return by tearing up Welsh rugby and securing a place in Wales’ World Cup plans.

But he doesn’t conceal his longing to pull on the red jersey once more.

“I’d love to play for Wales again,” he says. “But with the injury record I have over the past three years I’m going to take it game by game.

“I played well at Exeter. This weekend’s a big game for me. I’ll just go from there and look forward.”

This weekend is Benetton away and Cuthbert is set to start for the Ospreys on Saturday.

He joined the Llandarcy-based region after being sold a vision by head coach Toby Booth, and Cuthbert reckons the potential is big.

“On paper, the team’s looking pretty deadly, with the likes of George [North], Tips [Justin Tipuric] and Alun [Wyn Jones], boys who have a lot of quality and experience, which is what you need to become competitive in knockout competitions,” he says.

He looks back fondly on his time in Devon, too.

“I loved Exeter,” he says. “It was an awesome time. We won a few trophies and I enjoyed my rugby alongside a great bunch of boys and learned a lot.

“I came out of it way more experienced and a more mature person.

“I’ve taken a lot out of the last three years, learned a lot, played with some absolute world-class players in a team full of superstars. Winning Europe and the Prem is no mean feat, and being involved was an awesome experience. Going there opened my eyes, just seeing how they coach and how they wanted to play. There’s not many teams that do it as well as they do.”

He took time out to salute his pal Gareth Anscombe for returning to Welsh rugby with such a bang after so long on the sidelines with injuries.

“You have to give Gareth credit,” Cuthbert said.

“I’ve seen him in some of the dark days.

“He’s come through those with flying colours and for him to be selected for Wales is great to see. He’s a good mate of mine and I’m very proud of him, really. We all are — all his friends and family.

“It’ll be good to see him get that Welsh jersey back on.”

It’ll be good to see Alex Cuthbert back in Welsh rugby, too.

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