By Simon Galinier
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On July 22, the scrum-half of Toulouse Alexi Bales (32) surprised his career world prematurely announce his end of career, while he was still under contract with the Toulouse stadium until June 2023. Exclusively for Rugby Newsthe native of Fumal (Lot-et-Garonne), passed through Agen and La Rochelle, agreed to come back to the reasons for this choice, between weariness and fear of concussions, and to detail his retraining project in the wine industry, around his new company Bales House for which he is already criss-crossing the Lot and Garonne to meet the winegrowers.
News: When did you make the decision to quit professional rugby?
Alexi Bales: I took it quite early. For me it was very clear. When I landed at Stade Toulousain in 2020, I had just turned thirty so I knew that high-level rugby was not going to last forever. I told myself that if I won a title with Toulouse, I would have completed my career and experienced magical moments. I just needed a trophy, won in 2021, with this fabulous Top 14/European Cup double. I wanted to complete my contract with Stade Toulousain (2023), but it ended a year earlier than expected.
What are the reasons that will lead to this choice?
A B : Physically, I still feel good, even though I had major shoulder surgery last season. The only thing that held me back was the concussions. For some time, I played much less in Toulouse, so I did not do too much. But I still suffered many concussions during my career and in the end, I feel it in my daily life. Often, my wife calls out to me and says, “Are you okay? Are you with us here or not?”, because I sometimes have a few moments of absence. I had a real awareness, because I didn’t want to find myself in 5 years with Alzheimer’s disease. Rugby is good and it’s beautiful, but it’s not the whole of life. When I turned 30, I started asking myself all these questions, except that in high-level sport there is no room for doubt and you have to throw yourself body and soul into the battle. . Suddenly, I told myself that it was time to stop as long as I was in good health and that I still had all my head to take advantage of my child and my family. This was a criterion that pushed me to hang up my crampons, before it was too late.
I spoke at length with Didier Lacroix and Jérôme Cazalbou and I understood that the 2022-2023 season would still be complicated for me…
Do you understand that this early career stop surprised a lot of people?
A B : It is sure that this decision has a lot of people, even around me. Even if my relatives were aware, many people were surprised that I was already quitting, since I was under contract until June 2023 with Toulouse. I knew that after my adventure with Stade Toulousain, it would be over. Except that last season, I played 2 and a half games (11 in the Top 14 and 1 in the Champions Cup, editor’s note), with the last 6 months where I haven’t played at all. I spoke at length with President Didier Lacroix and Jérôme Cazalbou (high-level manager) and I understood that the 2022-2023 season would still be complicated for me, because the staff relies more on young people, in particular Paul Graou (25 years) who arrive from Agen. I did not see myself having a white season again. It wouldn’t have been easy for me and for the team, because when you train during and you don’t play on the weekend, at some point, you explode and it can reflect on the group.
After 14 seasons at the highest level, are you proud to leave with a sense of accomplishment?
A B : Frankly, 14-15 years ago, if someone had told me that I was going to have this career, I would have immediately signed with both hands. I experienced crazy emotions, far beyond my dreams. Each experience has been huge and above all made me grow as a man. I experienced two climbs to the Top 14 with Agen, including one in my first professional season (2009-2010), but also two descents. I spent 4 fabulous seasons in La Rochelle, in a sold-out stadium every weekend, summer and winter. I really took my foot, it was magic. When I arrived at Stade Toulousain, I discovered an incredible club with a unique history and generation. I don’t think we will often see such a generation in the next 40 or 50 years. All this makes me say that I went to the end of my story, so I have no regrets.
We have the feeling that this choice has freed you from a certain weight…
A B : We’ll see this winter if I don’t miss the pitches, but here, honestly, I’ve left for a new project and I’m as excited as when I started rugby. This sport is now behind me and a new challenge is opening up in my life. I really want to grow professionally while also enjoying family time, because I have a 2-year-old boy. For a long time, I had very few free weekends, so I couldn’t take full advantage of my loved ones and I want to make up for this lost time.
Do you plan to stay in rugby by lending a hand to a Lot-et-Garonne amateur club?
A B : As a player, definitely not! Even though I’m used to never say never, I’m really determined to hang up my crampons. Afterwards, it is sure that it will be difficult to get out of the world of rugby, because I have only known that since the age of 5 and my family is also immersed in it. I might give a hand on specific training such as skills (individual technique), but rather with youth teams, around Agen or at the SUA training center. I have a 2 year old son who should play rugby later, given his temperament, so I think I will be close to him. And I’m also going to become a consultant for a local radio station, 47 FM, so I’ll stay close to the world of rugby, but off the field.
The world of wine and rugby are similar, whether in Agenais, Pic Saint-Loup or the Rhône Valley…
Tell us about your conversion project and the creation of your Maison Balès company…
A B : It’s a project that has been close to my heart for a long time. I know where I want to go and with whom I want to go there, so I took the gamble of setting up my company. I know it’s going to be complicated, because I’m starting from scratch and there are already people in place in the wine industry, but that’s also what’s exciting. I have already had this passion and this desire for several years, so I am not starting from scratch either, because the project has had time to mature in my head. Through my company Maison Balès, I am now an independent commercial agent in wines, champagnes and spirits. I go to several chateaux and wine estates throughout France and then sell their products to all professionals, wine merchants, restaurateurs and other companies around Agen. I am currently finalizing my wine and champagne list and I hope to market these products at the end of September or the beginning of October.
Do you think that your past as a former professional rugby player could serve you in this new universe?
A B : Of course, I would be silly not to use the small image that I maintained for 15 years with rugby, but beyond that, the world of wine and rugby are closely linked. I see it when I meet the winegrowers. Whether in Agenais, Pic Saint-Loup or in the Rhône Valley, I can see that rugby is deeply rooted among winegrowers. Every time I visit a castle or an estate, its owner is a supporter of the local rugby club. We really talk about rugby, but also a lot of wines. I think the two go well together, which is also why I wanted to do this job.
Can we therefore imagine that Alexi Balès will one day sell the Bordeaux wines produced by Rémi Lamerat or those of the Minervois produced by Christophe Urios?
A B : Rémi Lamerat is a friend. We are from the same generation (1990), we followed each other from the young French teams and we know each other very well. He is in the process of setting up a great project as a winegrower at the Château Grand-Jour estate, near Bordeaux. He will make his first harvest at the end of August or the beginning of September. It is planned that we meet and that I go to discover his domain. It’s possible that I’ll sell his wine, but first, I have to taste it (laughs). On my map, I’m also not going to put all my friends who are into wine. I will select my products. It’s true that people are a very important factor, but what’s in wine also has to be interesting for me to offer it to my clients.
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