Sam James speaks to TRU about why England wasn’t on his mind, his breakthrough year and staying level-headed.
A lot has happened to Sam James since ‘that’ try in November 2015. “It was massive for me. It is the kind of game you dream of because it helps you kick-start your career.”
He is reflecting on his first Sale Sharks try against Northampton Saints when he superbly chipped over Stephen Myler and collected the ball on the bounce to help his side seal victory, but James still remains very grounded and humble despite what he has achieved over the last 18 months.
James’ willingness to adapt to different positions has been effortless, his ability has certainly improved and by utilising his intelligence, his reputation to become the next exceptional player to be produced by Sale’s academy has come to fruition. With a number of international players joining up with the Lions squad in New Zealand this summer, James has deservedly been given his chance to tour Argentina with England in June.
“It was a big surprise and a massive honour to be named in the squad,” James says. “It is massive for anyone in their career, but for me being in only my second season at Sale, it is a privilege to be selected and I am really looking forward to it.”
In truth, James is still a local lad who first came into contact with the sport aged just four, but rather than just resting on his laurels and enjoying his England call-up, he is itching to keep on improving which is something he has continuously done since he started playing the game.
“My Dad took me down to Manchester Rugby Club when I was much younger” James explains. “He had just started playing there as he had moved from Burnage. He took me along a year or two too young, but a few years later, I was playing with people a lot older than I was and I finally caught up with my age and it went from there really.”
James is certainly one of the most gifted players to come off Sale’s talented conveyer belt since he joined the club following a successful school rugby career at Wilmslow High and there is now a new crop of players most notably, Ben and Tom Curry, advancing through the ranks. The twins have certainly made their mark this season and James is not surprised by the talent Sale continues to produce.
“That’s what the club do,” James says. “It’s what they have always done. If you look at a couple of the lads who are a few years old than me like Will Addison and Josh Beaumont, as a player coming through the academy, you want to be like them and they are your role models. I guess it is the same for some of the younger boys.
“Just look at the players coming through at the moment such as the Curry twins, George Nott and James Flynn. They will look at the likes of Mike Haley and other players and focus on trying to emulate them and I think that is where it spreads from because Sale prides itself on home-grown talent and that is only a positive thing for the club.”
Many former local Sale players who have completed the journey which James is currently on will understand what he and the others are going through. For James, his life seemed to change after that moment of magic against Northampton at the AJ Bell Stadium last season and he followed that up with 22 more appearances for Sale after making his debut for the club in 2014 against the Saints.
After arguably his breakthrough year, James went on to represent the England Saxons against South Africa last summer alongside fellow Sale teammates Mike Haley, Ross Harrison, Tommy Taylor and Danny Cipriani. Both Taylor and Cipriani moved to Wasps at the conclusion of the last campaign, but after a season of playing alongside Cipriani, James cannot speak highly enough about the England international.
“He was the one player that helped you out one-on-one and really honed in on your abilities, he says. “Alongside Danny, Paul Deacon as a coach has had a huge impact on my career. He brought in the system which I love and it is a style of play which I have taken a lot of joy from so I think Paul and Danny together helped me blossom as a player last year and helped me take my chance at first-team level.”
Since he ‘blossomed’ as James puts is, this is the first time we have spoken with him. It might be a small thing to him, but knowing James from my time at school, his values and persona have not changed. There have been plenty of players James’ age who have stepped out at the AJ Bell over the past few years, but the 22 year-old has never let his rise in the sport affect the way he lives his life.
In previous interviews, James has talked about the support his family has given him and his younger brother Luke (who is also at Sale), but perhaps it is his close friendship with teammate Mike Haley which has helped him settle at the AJ Bell the most.
Both the same age, Haley and James have gone through this journey together. “You are not always doing stuff by yourself,” James says. “It is so much easier to be doing extras with a friend who is the same situation. It obviously helps that I live with Mike so if we are both stuck at loose end, then we’ll go to the gym together, do recovery and even review our performances so it is all about bouncing off each other.”
Haley has also been recognised by England Head Coach Eddie Jones as he was included in their training squad ahead of last year's tour to Australia, but unfortunately, he won’t be joining James in South America next month.
For James’ next chapter, he will be with fellow Sale teammates Denny Solomona and the Curry twins and he relishing the challenge of representing England despite not thinking he would make the squad. “I just put it to the back of my mind,” he says. “We’ve not had the best of seasons at Sale so it wasn’t something I spent too much time thinking about because I was just focusing on the next game for Sale and England wasn’t really an option for me.
“Obviously, I am honoured to be in the squad and it will be a big learning curve for me. Myself, Denny, and both the Curry twins are looking forward to learning off our respective role models in our positions so it will be great to get into camp to learn off these players that have been in and around the squad for the last few years.”
James also talks positively about Jones recognising the talent Sale have in their squad. “You see him at games,” he said. “To know that he is watching you, it gives you that extra kick you need to push you in the right direction especially towards the end of the season.”
You cannot question the progress James has made over the last year and a half and he will admit that he has made serious improvements, but he is fully aware that a summer in Argentina is not something he will be taking for granted.
“Last year was a relief because you are getting acknowledged for the season you have had, but at the same time, you want to improve on that. You have always got to improve.”