Exeter Chiefs legend brought down the curtain on his illustrious playing career at the end of the 2017/18 Premiership season…but it’s not the end of his journey at Sandy Park, as JAMES CHUBB discovers
I remember the first player I encountered on my introductory tour of Sandy Park after taking up match day duties. Hoving through the double doors came the 6’3” frame of Kai Horstmann, neatly groomed, fresh from the gym. He casually held the door open for me with a friendly “afternoon chaps”. I distinctly remember feeling like a Muggle stepping into Hogwarts.
Roll on six years and it’s the same familiar figure sitting across from me, with the same warm expression and genial disposition, as I question him about his rise to the top of elite sport.
“I was probably a bit feral as a child,” he remembers. It’s with a fond glint in his eye that Kai recalls his youth growing up in rural Zimbabwe with his older brother Dirk and two sisters, Kim and Brit.
“My father was a surgeon and my mother was a farmer, growing roses for the Dutch export market,” Kai continues. “Looking back, I was a ball of energy and I think my Mum knew, even at that stage, that packing me off to prep school in England would be the making of me.”
Kai attended Lambrook School in Berkshire from the age of seven, with his parents half a world away back in Zimbabwe. After Lambrook he followed his brother to Wellington College.
“Rugby was always my passion. Growing up in Zimbabwe in the early nineties, every young boy was obsessed with the Springboks. They were just re-emerging as an international test nation. I was hooked. Boarding school was the ticket for me to access any sport I liked,” added Kai.
Whilst a Wellington College pupil, Kai’s rumbustious forward play caught the eye of the Harlequins talent scout. A professional contract was signed, but it was Kai’s mother again who proved influential.
“Mum wanted me to get a degree and I ended up at Swansea reading sports science,” recalls Kai. “It wasn’t a course I had considered studying before then, but lucky I did, as that was where Caz and I met.”
Caroline and Kai would eventually marry, put down roots outside Caroline’s home town of Exeter and have a family, so it was some considerable lucky break!
Being a natural footballer with exceptional athleticism took Kai into the world of Sevens rugby while at Quins, where he played in the last England team to win the illustrious Hong Kong Sevens. Worcester Warriors signed Kai for the 2005 season and the Sevens rugby was discouraged to focus fully on their Premiership campaign.
“If anything I was relieved about that, I was getting a bit too old for Sevens,” jokes Kai.
It was during his seven-year spell with Worcester that Kai grabbed England Saxons honours, playing in the Churchill Cup and picking up two Man of the Match awards in the process.
It’s easy to see what caught Rob Baxter’s eye when contemplating this marauding forward with international honours and the unique accomplishment of being both Premiership Club Player and Players’ Player of the Year in the same season. Kai was quite the catch for Chiefs.
Kai’s first season was marred by a ruptured hamstring which put him out of action for most of the year. But he was instrumental in the ruthless rise of the Chiefs over the subsequent four years; a rise that reached its zenith with the club lifting the ultimate prize in domestic rugby last year as Aviva Premiership Champions.
Moreover, Kai was pivotal in the first major silverware claimed by Chiefs in the top flight. His Man of the Match performance in the final of the 2014 LV Cup win held, totally by luck, at Sandy Park was widely seen as a watershed for the club.
“For me, there was a turning point in the mindset of the club at that point,” explains Kai. “It was that game, facing a tough opposition we historically struggled against, where we stepped up and realised just how good we were as a team, and how important Sandy Park was for the boys.”
After that LV Cup win, the Chiefs pushed on in 2016 to reach the Premiership final at Twickenham only to come up short against a Saracens outfit in full flow. Then followed a disastrous run of results at the opening of the 2017 season in which Chiefs lost seven out of 11 games.
“I think we were guilty of expecting to roll teams over,” explains Kai. “One morning the whole playing squad sat down and did some soul searching. We made a wholehearted pledge to commit to winning the Premiership. We decided to focus on giving everything to that goal, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant.”
Scroll forward five months and Gareth Steenson is calmly slotting a penalty in the 97th minute at Twickenham, to sink a Wasps team who had led early on in the game, but had been under the cosh for much of the second half and extra time period.
Kai’s role in that success prompted a year’s extension to his playing contract. For a physical forward to have a top-flight career spanning 16 years is exceptional in the modern game and an indication of Kai’s professionalism, commitment and talent. No wonder the club were keen to hold on to him!
During the 2018 season a role within the Chiefs sales team became available and Kai worked double shifts from Christmas, being a full-time rugby player as well as learning the ropes in the world of sports marketing and sales.
“It’s a huge privilege for me to maintain my connection to the club, while developing new business skills. I’m under no misconception how hard the transition will be, but it’s a challenge I am really ready for.
“And as well as staying involved with the club, it also means that we get to stay here in Devon as a family.”
The new role sees Kai stepping into the capacious shoes of Chris Bentley as matchday corporate host and sales executive; a role this charming guy will execute and evolve with aplomb as the club enters its next exciting phase.
“Recent years have been focused on the rugby,” says Kai. “I was at the sharp end of that, so I know how much the boys will strive to stay ahead of the field now they’ve reached the top, but the club has plans on the horizon to take things to the next level, too.”
A new hotel complex, further hospitality and conference facilities and the development of the supporter experience at match days will keep Kai busy in the coming years. It’s sure to be a massive challenge, requiring professionalism, commitment and talent.
All of which Kai has a profusion of.
Why Team-i for Kai?
Before departing his playing role and moving to off field duties with the Chiefs, Kai assisted with content and strategy advice for Team-i Training – the new teamwork and training company launching in the South West.
Team-i runs teamwork and leadership programmes which shows how the skills and knowledge practised by pro rugby players can be transcended into business to help them achieve success.
Kai explains: “I have long thought of rugby as the ultimate team game and it’s clear the work we do on teamwork and leadership can be adapted to the world of business. It’s great for me to behind this exciting new series of courses which takes training for companies to a new level.”