International rugby came quite easily to Alex Cuthbert at first.
Within a year of his professional debut with Cardiff Blues, he scored the decisive try in Wales’ 2012 Grand Slam-clinching win over France.
A year later, the powerful wing struck again as Wales thrashed England to seal the 2013 Six Nations title, and that summer another of his tries helped the British and Irish Lions beat Australia.
Then the rest of the world started to catch up.
And when Cuthbert looked over his shoulder, he started to doubt himself.
“I reached the top, in terms of what I wanted to achieve, very quickly,” the 30-year-old, now playing for Exeter Chiefs, tells the GoBonus Scrum V podcast.
“I was still at university, living with about eight of my mates in a house in Cardiff.
“But it happened so quickly at such a young age, I maybe didn’t have the best guidance around me at that time to keep going again and again. I don’t know, maybe I rested on my laurels a little bit.”
On the occasions Cuthbert felt he had not reached his own high expectations, uncertainty would creep in.
The tries dried up – he went 12 games without scoring for Wales – and criticism would follow.
“It wasn’t like I wasn’t training. I still wanted to be the fittest, I still wanted to win every Test,” Cuthbert adds.
“It was just my game maybe needed to change with the times – a lot of players would know how I would play.
“Maybe I needed to change myself but it was quite a hard thing because it all happens so quickly. I kept trying to do what I was doing before and it wasn’t working.
“Then I would get more and more frustrated, I’d dwell on things and comments would stick with you.”
Those comments would start as a trickle on social media, insignificant enough to brush off.
But they quickly became a torrent, and what started as opinions about his performances soon morphed into abuse.
“I had a few really bad messages which I can’t repeat,” Cuthbert says.
“But I’ve had some funny ones I’ve taken a screenshot of, like ‘Alex Cuthbert is the David Luiz [Arsenal’s error-prone Brazilian defender] of rugby’.
“I had some nasty ones, I had some on Facebook as well. I probably should have outed them there and then. It needs to be stamped out.
“When I look back now, I’m thick-skinned now, and I’d tell myself it doesn’t mean anything. What really matters is what your team-mates, coaches and family think.
“I learnt a hell of a lot in that period – I went real high and then I went real low.”
‘When I felt the lowest’
The lowest ebb came in the midst of that scoring drought between 2015 and 2016.
The Welsh rugby public, an unforgiving audience, had honed in on Cuthbert as the scapegoat for many of the team’s shortcomings.
“It was probably around the 2015 World Cup. That was a tough time,” he says.
“I wasn’t playing well, I had a really bad knee injury, tendonitis, I’d been playing with for 18 months.
“Then I had to play the 2016 Six Nations after that and some days I couldn’t even walk. That was getting me down, and then social media was starting to go massive then and I guess I was on that too much.
“That was when I felt the lowest.
“But when I look back now, I wasn’t really low – I’m now playing for probably the best team in Europe, I’ve got nearly 50 caps for Wales and I’m a Lions Test player. So in terms of being low, I haven’t really hit that.”
Cuthbert is eager to stress how his use of the term “low” is relative.
Having achieved all he has in his sport, and having recently become a father for the first time, life is good.
But after Cuthbert’s heady first few years as a professional, there is no doubt the lean spells and the criticisms which followed left their mark.
Many athletes have spoken openly during Mental Health Awareness Week and among them is another former Wales and Cardiff Blues wing, Tom James.
James, who announced his retirement last week, revealed in 2018 he had received treatment for depression and said that sharing his experience had helped him recover.
Cuthbert’s struggle may have been a different one, but he felt empowered by James’ honesty.
“You put yourself in a bubble where you don’t let yourself get any help,” Cuthbert says.
“As soon as I left Wales and came here, I reflected on it. I was living a great life in Wales, playing top-level rugby, and by leaving I was probably reacting to some things people had been saying. You don’t really know that until you get out of the bubble.
“A little bit like TJ [James] – he’s really open now about what he went through. He was bottling it up through a lot of his career and when he let go it was such a relief.
“As a young player, especially with social media such a big factor, a lot of these boys will be reading these comments and just bottling it up. Especially rugby boys, you want to be the tough guy and just don’t want to speak out, but sometimes it’s the best thing to do.
“It’s just a sense of relief. I remember going to training always thinking about it and that would affect my training. I knew if I didn’t have a good training week it would affect my game.”
As much as he cherished his time in Cardiff, Cuthbert is now feeling the benefits of getting out of Welsh rugby’s “bubble”.
His move to former English champions Exeter has been reinvigorating, even if it has meant sacrificing his international career for now.
Welsh Rugby Union selection rules mean players are ineligible for national selection if they move to a club outside Wales and have not won 60 caps.
Cuthbert may add to his 47 Wales appearances at some point in the future but, for now, he has bigger priorities, such as being a father.
“You can tell I look a bit tired now, getting up every two hours! He’s about a month old now, little baby Harrison,” he says.
“This lockdown has been quite nice in terms of me being able to spend time with him, whereas before I’d be training all day and Sarah [Cuthbert’s partner] would have to do it on her own.
“I knew when I left Wales I wouldn’t be able to play for Wales because of the 60-cap rule. For me it’s just about getting back to enjoying rugby and playing, which I feel like I’ve done at Exeter.
“Obviously I’d love to play for Wales but it’s out of my hands. I’m only just 30 so I’m not the oldest man. It’s just about being here another year and I’m loving every minute.”