James Williams Exclusive: Taking his opportunity at Bristol Bears after standout years with Hartpury

James Williams joined Bristol Bears after two years with Championship club Hartpury
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When James Williams last spoke to TRU, the 25-year-old said he had ‘unfinished business’ in the Premiership.

Those comments were made back in 2020 when Covid-19 was turning the world upside down and Williams had recently re-joined Hartpury in the Championship. 

Having spent time with Worcester Warriors and then Sale Sharks, as a result of the pandemic, his contract in the North-West was not renewed despite having made Premiership and Champions Cup appearances.

In both the 2020/21 and 2021/22 campaigns, Williams was at his very best in the red of Hartpury. Making the league’s Team of the Season last year as the first choice inside centre, he had not only raised his performances, but even captained the side.

It was in March rumours that Bristol Bears’ Director of Rugby Pat Lam liked what he saw in Williams. Now five months on from those initial reports, he sits next to me at Ashton Gate after an open training session in front of his new fans.

“I do feel more mature,” Williams said. “Probably just because there has been so many downs, another crack and then you are off. I think in terms of that sort of resilience and one step in front of another, especially going to a professional sports environment.

“There are a lot of setbacks every day when analysing what you have done well and what you haven’t done well in that day, let alone years. I think I have definitely matured and trying not to take everything to heart.

“Say I am not playing in however many weeks’ time, that is not the be-all and end-all. I will get chances across this season, instead of getting too bogged down on selections. It is a long old season. I know at some point along the line I am going to get an opportunity, it is up to me whether to take it or not.”

Over the past two years, Williams has had to get used to preparing for his rugby in a different kind of way. Most of this was down to being part-time, going on the road early in the mornings to train with Hartpury before driving to Bristol for a day's work.

Having worked for a company called Refine Property, the 25-year-old’s responsibilities largely consisted of the renovation of old flats and student lets and turning them into show homes before sale.

It was physical work and his schedule was focused on balancing that with his rugby, something that Williams describes as helping him ‘build mental strength and resilience’. Add to that a series of new challenges he hadn’t been faced with before, and it all contributed to the man from Dorset being at his best in recent times.

“I think I knew that I was more of a senior play at Hartpury,” he said. “I knew the coaches wanted me to drive certain things. I did quite enjoy that, being a bit more vocal in terms of how we want to play which I think then made me feel more confident on the pitch instead of being a little fish in a big pond and being a bigger fish in a smaller pond. It helped me promote standards which is good for my rugby.

“Off the pitch, being able to completely switch off and not think about rugby or watching training back and things like that, it probably made me a bit more relaxed and you could get away with a bit more on the pitch.

“Then on the flip side, coming into Bristol, it has been nice to fully focus on rugby and not have to worry about doing certain things outside of rugby.”

Walking into the state-of-the-art Bears training facility, Williams has come across some familiar faces. Having played with Harry Randall and Henry Purdy in years gone by at the ALPAS Arena, he has also been joined by Oscar Lennon and Spanish prop duo Toti and Jono Benz-Salomon.

Another staple of Championship rugby in recent years who now also calls Bristol home, Rich Lane has been a top performer with Bedford Blues for some time and joined Lam’s side partway through the last campaign as a result of injuries that befell the Bears squad. His displays earned him a full-time deal.

In recruiting from the Championship, Lam has not only addressed some of the depth issues that have plagued his team but he has also been able to bring in quality players for less with the salary cap having been reduced to £5m.

“I think Lane has definitely stood up in the Championship in the last three seasons,” Williams said. “When we were at Hartpury, it was all about Rich Lane and not giving the ball to Rich Lane.

“Especially with the salary cap as well, there are some very good players in the Championship, and clubs are realising they can get them relatively cheap rather than bringing someone over from abroad and paying them a fortune.

“I think it is good to know, and speaking to boys back in the Champ, they know that clubs are watching. There seems to be a bit more of a link between Hartpury and Bristol, and then Pirates and Exeter, those relationships with Champ and Premiership clubs pairing up.”

In the Bears’ first pre-season game of the summer, Williams scored a try in a 45-28 win over Dragons at Rodney Parade. Starting that game at inside centre and playing second fiddle to Callum Sheedy in the midfield, Williams is clearly relishing his chance to be back in the top-flight.

Looking across the turf of Ashton Gate as he speaks, the 25-year-old reflects on those comments that he made over two years ago and looks at the opportunity he has now to impress himself further.

“With everything going on in those sorts of times, you lose not motivation but you wonder if it is ever going to happen again,” Williams said. “I just settle into the Hartpury life. Luckily Pat gave me a call when I was at work.

“I do feel very lucky, but I am well aware that I have got to give it a full crack otherwise that could be the last opportunity.

“It has been a good pre-season in terms of clarity of role and what they are wanting from me which has been quite nice. Previously [at other Premiership clubs] you are kind of drifting around, hoping you are getting noticed.

“Pat and Conor [McPhillips - Bristol Attack and Backs Coach] have been quite hands-on with me and helped me out quite a lot. It has all been pretty positive so far. I have been loving it.”