Exclusive: London Scottish's James Tyas on the Championship, being the club's analyst and switching codes

James Tyas has started all but one of London Scottish's Championship Rugby games this season
©Simon Cooper

Much of James Tyas’ career has been spent in the Championship. Amassing over 100 appearances in the competition, the 30-year-old speaks just several days after London Scottish’s 36-17 loss to Ampthill.

It has been a difficult season for the forward and his teammates as they currently sit at the foot of the second tier after 12 games. It was always going to be a tough return to action for Matt Williams’ side, who brought together a new group of players after missing out on the truncated 2020/21 term.

Tyas is now preparing himself for a West London derby against Richmond in two weeks time and their rivals haven’t played a game since early December as their fixtures with Cornish Pirates and Coventry were cancelled as a result of Covid-19.

Beginning the season slowly, with losses against Jersey Reds and Doncaster Knights, as well as a heavy 101-7 defeat to Ealing, Tyas says the upcoming derby could be a catalyst for greater things at the Richmond Athletic Ground for the rest of the campaign.

“I think we were well aware coming into the Championship that this year was going to be about development,” he said. “There is no other way of looking at it. 

“This is the first season where we have gone from full-time to part-time. The squad is completely new, with a lot of boys playing at the highest level they have played at. You put all of these things together and you know it is going to be a tough start.

“The frustrating thing that we are finding now is that we are wanting to lose that tag of being the ‘nearly men’. We have had a lot of games now where I look back and think we should have beaten Cornish Pirates and we could have beaten Bedford. 

“I can’t fault any of the boys’ effort. They turn up every week prepared, but it has been really tough to catch up and I think the improvements we have made are huge. That probably leads perfectly into the Richmond game, a derby where you are sharing a ground and kind of decides your season to a certain extent.

“This can be a game-changer for the whole season and how the season is looked at if we beat Richmond. We all understand this is a development season, but the one game that everyone expects you to win, and everyone wants you to win, is your derby.”

Tyas’ experiences of watching his side’s defeats have been accentuated further by his dual role as The Exiles’ lead analyst. This has meant that in the hours and days after a result at the weekend, the lock has spent his time putting together the stats for himself and his teammates.

Reporting back to Matt Williams, Dan George and Ricky Khan at training on a Monday and Wednesday evening at Maidenhead RFC, the 30-year-old is also head of rugby at Proview Sports Analysis, providing support for numerous National League Rugby teams, as well as the Dutch national side.

Having begun his journey as an analyst when playing for Worcester Warriors in the Championship in 2014/15, after sustaining a serious knee injury, then Director of Rugby Dean Ryan found another way to keep his young forward engaged during his long spell on the sidelines.

“I have always been a rugby geek,” Tyas laughed, “so being an analyst was a natural transition. Everyone has always called me a lineout nerd, so being able to code and learn it myself and to actually have even more control in the game was a no-brainer.

“The coolest bit for me this year was analysing Doncaster [Knights]. We knew that we’d run the same sort of move three or four times, and as an analyst, you can point out what our trends have been, as well as opposition trends.

“We changed our move slightly and scored in the corner from our set play. Being able to have that effect as an analyst and then being able to run it as a player has been really cool. It helps my preparation massively, and I have a really weird déjà vu because of the amount of footage I watch on teams and then doing it whilst you are playing is a really cool feeling.”

Part-time in name only

When speaking to Tyas, it becomes clear that rugby is far beyond a job for him. It’s an obsession. Having been a professional with Bath and Worcester, the lock has invested in himself off the field to give him the best chance of competing on it.

This has been done through recruiting a trusted group of people around him in the form of a sports chiropractor (Juliet Lock from The Practice), an S&C coach (Nick Lane From Proview Sports Performance) and a sprint coach (Sam Portland). They have been helping Tyas since his time with Worcester came to a close, his knee injury so significant that he was told to retire on medical grounds.

“I gave back my retirement money which from the RPA is quite a large amount of money,” he said. “I said I wasn’t retiring and went to National Two (to play for Chinnor). Nobody would take me at any other level. I needed a year to rest and recuperate.

“My body is absolutely fine now. As you can imagine, it is in even better nick because of the training team I have around me. They know my body better than I do.

“I picked up a foot injury at London Scottish in 2017/18 and I was told to retire again. I fractured my sesamoid against Bristol, which is the bone underneath your foot. 

“No one had done that and played on, so myself and Juliet got a fourth opinion, had an operation to take the bone out of my foot and learnt how to walk and run again without a bone beneath my foot.

“I got told to retire and as a player at a club when you are told to retire, players will usually just say that they are done. Having that team around me, we found that fourth opinion because I wanted to keep on playing.”

It is Tyas’ sprint coach that catches the eye the most. Portland’s career has seen him work for Wasps and Ealing Trailfinders, with NFL and CFL draft hopefuls, as well as with former England U20 international Alex Gray, who transitioned to American Football to represent the Atlanta Falcons.

London Irish’s Ollie Hassell-Collins and Tom Parton have also worked with the former Henley Hawks wing, as does Team GB rugby sevens player Emma Uren. 

Sessions fit perfectly into Tyas’ schedule, taking place on a Tuesday and Thursday, with duties for Scottish happening on a Monday and Wednesday.

“I have always tried to bring a different focus with rugby, rather than just relying on a rugby team,” Tyas said. “I have tried to have a different approach to try and keep my dream alive, with having a group of people around me that I trust implicitly.

“I think I am very lucky because once a lot of players step down, they don’t have that level of support and those people driving them. I have probably looked at tennis in a way, with everyone you have going with you.

“That has enabled me to take on the part-time opportunity (with Scottish) because I wouldn’t want to be part-time and just turn up twice a week for training.”

Crossing codes

During the one-hour conversation with Tyas, he made several references to his “time in league”. Wholly uncertain of what the 30-year-old was referencing, it was only right to ask the question.

What followed was a quite frankly remarkable story about how after many years of watching Super League, combined with Scottish opting out of the 2020/21 Championship season and a desire to give the 13-man code a crack, Tyas decided to go down the Rugby League route.

He earned a trial with Wakefield Trinity and played in each of the team’s pre-season friendlies before heading back to the English capital in order to represent the London Skolars in League 1.

“I had watched so much Super League before I went into Wakefield, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for actually playing,” Tyas said.

“After my first week, I was playing in the first pre-season game and I carried twice in the first set. I got way too carried away in my first five minutes. I have never felt my lungs so much in any rugby union game.

“I would take any bronco, any fitness test next to playing that first game of league. I was playing at 120kg. It was just the most amazing experience and coming on for all those pre-season games was the completely different challenge that I wanted.”

This adventure into rugby league has seemingly had an impact on and off the field. Proview Sports have begun providing analysis for the London Broncos and there is an added carrot for Tyas knowing that the postponed 2021 Rugby League World Cup is just around the corner in the UK.

With the Championship season ending in late-March, when you put that date and the World Cup’s early autumn start together, there is no reason why the Dumfries-born forward wouldn’t be able to transition to the other code.

It is something that Tyas himself isn’t ruling out, even if his contractual situation doesn’t exactly marry up with that calendar. Even then, there is an added twist in the tail after a Premiership club came calling for his services in November.

“I still feel like I have unfinished business in rugby league,” Tyas said. “Purely because of how much I enjoyed it and the potential to go and play for Scotland at a World Cup would be unbelievable.

“With the seasons tracking as they do, it would be difficult. One thing that I will say is after this Scottish season, I was fully convinced that I wanted to go back to rugby league, but going to Wasps to play in the Prem Cup, that made me believe I could still go somewhere with rugby union.”

Making a step up

So far this season, Tyas has been virtually ever-present for Scottish. Playing more consistently in the second-row - having largely been deployed at blindside flanker in his career to date - the challenge of calling the lineout has also fallen at his feet.

In fact, the only game which the 30-year-old has missed so far this season is Scottish’s 41-31 loss at the hands of Nottingham at Lady Bay. Instead, Tyas was some 50 miles away in Coventry lining up for Wasps in their Premiership Rugby Cup tie with Leicester Tigers.

Making his debut the weekend before at Kingston Park against Newcastle Falcons, he played alongside Championship regular Russell Bennett (Ampthill) and fellow sprint club participant Biyi Alo.

“Biyi was in the sprint group with me and he is a 135kg prop,” Tyas said. “Doing this sprint training is how they do their GPS and the speed of every single kick-chase.

“Against Tigers, I was absolutely shattered because you know that every single kick is going to be monitored. You are never allowed to get away with it.”

There was a theme amongst the Premiership Rugby Cup squads, with numerous Championship players given the call from top-flight teams to go full-time for the best part of a month.

This was primarily due to most squads already being threadbare this season, whether that be because of injury or Covid-19. Many young players gained experience in the Premiership Cup, but bodies were still needed meaning Championship warriors such as Tyas got an opportunity to prove what they were made of.

“I liked it in the Prem Cup, where you saw Leicester Tigers give guys like Josh Poullet (Nottingham) a chance,” he said. “You see a lot of players in the Premiership, like Robin Hislop at Wasps (formerly of Doncaster Knights) getting an opportunity and then taking a starting shirt.

“No matter what the RFU say, and with the funding cuts, there is a massive pathway for players to play in the Championship and then go into the Premiership. For me, it was a massive opportunity that I wanted to take with both hands, play two games and prove to myself I can do it.

“I wanted to take every single positive learning experience out of it. Training with Brad Shields, Jimmy Gopperth, Nizaam Carr – who was brilliant – and for someone like me who is 30 and has played a lot in the Championship, to go and test myself and see these guys and the standards they hold has been brilliant for me to take back into the Championship.”