In his early days at Gloucester Rugby, Will James did a good side line in barbeque sets. His playing colleagues at Kingsholm nicknamed him “Mr Grills” and it stuck. Now 37, James has said goodbye to the club’s loyal supporters after eight seasons. His final home game, if not his final season, ended on an uplifting note.
The shaven headed lock forward is heading north as soon as the season is over. His destination is
Ampleforth College, where he will develop not only young players but also his own coaching career. It is a post which clearly excites him.
“The opportunity came up towards the end of last summer” he told me. “I had renewed my contract to play this season in January 2013. but coaching and development roles don’t come up that often, especially within the independent schools network. I knew I couldn’t play on for ever, and although mentally and physically I thought I could do one more year you have to look at the bigger picture.”
“I had to consider my next step, and this was something with more longevity about it. When I’d been for the interview and heard I’d been successful, it was a mix of joy and anticipation. I finish my career and have something to get stuck into straight away, especially since the school have held the post open since last September.”
Ampleforth is an impressive set up. Half an hour north of York, the estate covers around 3,500 acres, and while it is a Catholic school, it is not exclusively for Catholic children. The rugby pedigree is significant, with Lawrence Dallaglio among its former pupils. Ampleforth Abbey, the Benedictine monastery linked to the school, makes beer and cider which is sold in major supermarkets.
Ahead of Saturday’s game with London Irish, James ran out ahead of the Gloucester team with his two children, Bethan (12) and Moyce (10). He signed for Gloucester at 29, so to stay for eight seasons and to represent Wales at full international level is a phase of his career he regards highly.
“I’ve had some great times and it’s been a privilege to be involved in so many memorable games” said Will. “There have been some disappointments, when we have got close to winning things, but once you have played at Gloucester it becomes part of who you are. I’ll always look for the results and have a genuine interest in how the guys are doing, and I hope the club can get back up to the top of the table and be challenging for honours in the future.”
As well as leaving Kingsholm, James is also standing down as chairman of the RPA, since the role has to be held by a current Premiership player. He leaves behind at Gloucester a group being extensively restructured by Nigel Davies, but one which James believes has a good blend.
“There has to be a balance. Very few teams can succeed on youthful energy alone, but equally you can’t have one which is top heavy on age, with the majority of the guys over 30. There’s a lot of quality coming in from people who have performed on the highest stage – an All Black (Afoa), a British Lion (Hibbard) and an experienced Scotland international (Laidlaw). There are some younger boys here who have been exposed to the Premiership for a
while now, and by adding those established players things can only get better.”
Coaching in the professional game maybe something James looks into further down the line, but he feels he is coming in at the right level. Earlier in the season, World Cup winner Trevor Woodman told me the boys he coached at Cheltenham College made the same mistakes as the Premiership players – the difference was they weren’t well paid professionals.
Since then Woodman has joined Gloucester as a full time coach. It’s a journey Will James is now taking in the other direction after Gloucester signed off their home Premiership campaign with a win that showed the sketchiness of their season as a whole. All in all, 2013-14 wasn’t a great vintage.
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