In his own words…
Following his Boxing Day announcement that he is to retire due to injury, Paul James looks back at his career, in a feature prepared for his testimonial launch earlier this year:
“When I think back to myself growing up as a boy and playing rugby at a local level, I’m probably lucky that I was fortunate enough to play professionally, because I can remember my mother going into a parents evening and the teacher said, “This could go one of two ways. Your son will either be a rugby player, or he could go straight to jail”!
“I suppose I was lucky, I met my wife Louise, she guided me down the straight and narrow, and kept me out of trouble. But, I would never have thought, looking back, that I would have achieved the goals, been awarded the silverware and played in the tournaments that I’ve played in.
“I don’t think you ever really pinch yourself and think “I’ve actually done it” as a rugby player, because you are continuously going through the process of it, if that makes sense? It’s probably only when you are coming towards the end of your career, that you start thinking retrospectively and begin to look back. When you are playing, you’re consistently looking ahead and always striving to win and achieve different things.
“When thinking of the key moments of my career, I think every player would say their first cap because its what you dream of as a kid, especially in Wales, to play for your country. So a definite stand-out moment would be playing up in Wrexham against Romania all those years ago, back in the summer of 2003.
"I remember my brother (Kevin) ringing me before that game, and he told me that I might be playing for Wales the following week. At that time, he was playing for the Dragons and Mike Ruddock was there. He said that he had heard a rumour in training that Hansen wanted to see me play, and Ruddock was going to be coaching for that game. I just played it down, but obviously the phone-call came then, to say I was going to be playing the following week.
“My second cap was just as big a deal. It was kind of bizarre really because I went to the World Cup in 03 after the Romania game, I’d been in and out of training squads over the years, but I’d suffered a few neck injuries which kept stalling me. Gatland came in, and to be honest, he probably overlooked me, initially but then I finally got the opportunity at the end of 2009, six years after my first.
“Basically, I’d never really played tight-head before that game, and when Gatland named the team to play against the All-Blacks and he named me as tight-head. Obviously, I was honoured and delighted to get my second cap, and to get off the one-mark six years on, but I was also like “f***, I’ve got to play tight-head and I’ve never played it before”.
“So it was a nice easy game against the All-Blacks to play it against! It must have gone okay because he kept picking me for a few more games after that.
“Another game which stands out is Ospreys vs Australia. Obviously I had the honour of being captain that night as well, I think that what makes that day so special was that at the time, I wasn’t in the Wales set-up, and it was an opportunity for the boys who were on the fringes of international rugby to have a crack at an international touring team. To beat them in a sell-out crowd in the Liberty was an amazing feeling.
“I must say a fact, that I cannot remember a single thing from the second-half of that game, I don’t think that would go well in concussion protocols these days! Back then, even though there was slightly less concern for players’ injuries and welfare, you wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I knew what was involved in the game. I’m the type of character that when I took an elbow to the face from George Smith, I remember hitting the floor and getting back up, then falling over about 10 times, and going into lineouts completely blank, but they kept me on for the full game. Then I went out all night, and got smashed – that’s how concussion used to work!
“Obviously you have your Grand-Slam stuff for Wales, but I suppose another stand-out game for me was just before I left to go to Bath, when we beat Leinster in the PRO12 Final at the RDS in Dublin in 2012, that was a nice leaving gig. Shane Williams was always going to have the limelight as it was his last game as well, he had about 10 ‘last games’ I think!
“I don’t have any regrets from my career. I’ve always given it my all, and I’ve got what I got out of it. I don’t think you can look back and think ‘what if’, because I always tried my best. I think that’s all anyone can ask out of a player, it’s what I would ask from anyone in my team. You can’t ask for more.
“On an occasion like this, when you reflect on what’s gone over the last how many years, it’s important to recognise people who have helped you get where you have and I’d like to give a lot of credit to my mother, Elizabeth, Big Liz I call her, for my career.
“My mother and father split up when I was 8 years old, so times were hard growing up, as my mother was a single parent. We didn’t have anything growing up me, my brother, and my mother, but she got us through it, she encouraged us to play rugby. She couldn’t drive but she made sure she got us to places by arranging lifts etc. So obviously I owe a lot to my mother. I looked up a lot to my older brother, he was the first one in the family to make it as a professional rugby player. But as a younger brother, you always look up to your older brother, to strive towards reaching the level of achievement he had obtained and to replicate these achievements.
“I don’t know who’s the better player between me or my brother to be honest. My brother has scored hundreds of more tries than me, but I suppose that is just a position thing, he played on the wing or centre. Back in the Neath days, it was Shane on one wing and my brother on the other, actually I think my brother is the highest try-scorer for Neath. It was great watching my brother play rugby growing up, I was a youngster coming through, he was still a youngster himself, being only two years older than me, but if you can score tries at a young age, they pick you don’t they? It’s a bit different than being in the front-row. I don’t think he’d have handled it in the front row mind, although he probably could now!
“It was great watching my brother run out for Neath week in, week out. I’d train with him, but I rarely got to wear the jersey at a young age. When we finally had the opportunity to play together for Neath, that was a great buzz as well. I suppose it was a proud moment for my mother, to see both of us play together, after the upbringing we had.
“Looking forward, I don’t really know what the future will hold for me. I’ve gone into a bit of coaching, to see if I want to be a coach in the long-run and at the moment I’m really enjoying it. Obviously it’s been a bit tough down in Neath, but I suppose in the long run it will only be good for my coaching skills, going through tough times, like I have as a player at the Ospreys at times.
“I think I’d like to carry on going with coaching and seeing where it goes, because I’ve played for a lot of years so come scrum-time, I know what I’m talking about. I’d like to think I can give a bit back.”