World Cup-winning flyhalf Butch James has quietly slipped out of the South African spotlight, after two years of European and English domestic rugby. But his ambition to one day play for the Springboks again is burning just as fiercely as it did before his first cap.
Speaking to rugby365, James admitted that watching players like Ruan Pienaar and Morné Steyn in No.10 jersey has made him realise how treasured his time with the Boks was.
He also spoke of his life in Europe, how it compares to Super Rugby and what helps keep him going through the cold Northern Hemisphere winters.
James, now 30, learned his trade as a young schoolboy on the grounds of Maritzburg College in Pietermaritzburg. After school, unsure of what direction to take, he joined the club rugby ranks in Durban, where he progressed from the Sharks Under-21 team into the senior squad, and it wasn’t long before he cemented his place as the first choice flyhalf at the coastal franchise and eventually in the Bok set-up.
As the premier flyhalf in both Natal and South Africa, it was inevitable that Europe would come knocking, and it was Bath who was successful in landing the pivot’s signature shortly before the 2007 World Cup. After the successful Springbok World Cup campaign, when the rest of the squad were returning to the home provinces, James was part of a small group who had shorter flights to their new homes in Europe.
“I always enjoyed Bath, I enjoyed some of the players that used to play here when I was still at school. Robbie Fleck played here and I am good mates with him, and he told me what a good place it was. I obviously didn’t have too many offers, but when I heard Bath was up, it made it a bit easier because Fleckie had always said it would be good,” James told rugby365.
During his time with the Sharks, James was a recognised star in Durban, the result of playing professional rugby in a country where the game is almost a religion. Now living in a country where rugby isn’t the number one sport, he has enjoyed being able to blend in with the population a bit more.
“Rugby’s not that big over here [in England] – although it is a pretty big thing in Bath – so you don’t get noticed as much as you would at home, which is good. On the same note, Durban is a pretty chilled place, so although you do get noticed every now and then, it’s not a mobbing or anything like that.”
Arriving as an established player, James received a warm welcome from his new teammates, despite having recently been part of two World Cup victories over the English. He says that although there are a few traditions to get used to, he wasn’t made to pass any sort of initiation in order to become a part of the team.
“After you have been here for a while you start to learn the different rivalries and the big derby games. Like against Bristol, where we play for a teddy bear. You find those out as you go through the season, but there is no real [initiation] tradition as a player that you have to go through.”
Having played for the Sharks for eight years, Kings Park (now Absa Stadium) remains a special place for James to play, but he admits that it is the Bath supporters that have the edge in terms of noise.
“The Rec [Bath's home ground] is probably a bit more vocal and a bit more passionate about the game. Although at Kings Park you do get your passionate guys, a lot of people do it for a social thing – which is awesome I think, Kings Park is a great place to play – but here, in snow, rain, whatever, they fill the stadium. Although it’s only 10,000 people, they make just as much noise as a full crowd at Kings Park.”
Bath were unable to progress past the quarterfinals in last season’s Heineken Cup, but James did get his first taste of European rugby. Away from his adopted home, he recalls a small crowd in France that was responsible for the best atmosphere he has experienced in Europe thus far.
“Last year we played against Toulouse, but at their smaller stadium, which was still awesome. They are as passionate over there as the Bath supporters, and also very vocal.
“Although it wasn’t the biggest stadium, it has been the best for me so far.”
One of a few players who has experienced both Heineken Cup and Super Rugby, James notes that there is little to choose between the two in terms of occasion, but says that the speed of the game is where the difference lies.
“We only played a few games last year in the Heineken Cup and it’s pretty similar I’d say. One thing with the Super 14 that I have noticed, even in comparison with the Premiership, is that obviously it’s a bit quicker. As a backline player in the Super 14 if you miss a tackle on one of the speedsters in the New Zealand sides in particular, it normally leads to a try, whereas here if you miss a tackle someone will cover or crossover for you because it’s not as quick.”
In October this year, the Springbok will get a shot at more European rugby as Bath open their Heineken Cup account with a fixture against Ulster, where they will likely face James’ former Sharks and Springbok teammate BJ Botha, a meeting James always relishes.
“It’s always nice to play against those guys, especially when you are living over here and they are living in a different country. It’s good to play against your old teammates in France for example, or Ireland. You can have a beer with them afterwards, or even stay there for the rest of the weekend. It’s also good to get them on the field, and hopefully get a good tackle in on them.” James wryly adds.
Even though Springboks playing abroad still remains mainly off-limits for Bok selection – there are a few exceptions – James says he still holds aspirations to wear the Green and Gold.
“There are a few guys playing well in the Springbok No.10 jersey,” James said in reference to Morné Steyn and Ruan Pienaar.
“I wanted to play against the British and Irish Lions and then I was probably going to finish up.
“But now, seeing the other guys in my position playing well, I want to try get back there and have one more little stint, but we will have to see how it goes, those guys are playing well,” he told rugby365.
It’s not just the lure of playing for the Springboks that has James missing home.
“Mainly I miss my mates and what they get up to on the weekends, you know. You always see the photos on the internet or wherever and you think ‘I wish I was there’ when they go away or do something that you want to be a part of. The things you miss most are your friends and family.”
Right now James’ focus will be resting squarely on Bath’s new season.
A troubled time for the club, the Rec will be delighted to welcome their familiar figurehead back onto the field, with hopes of bettering last year’s European showing.
Having named Bok scrumhalf Michael Claassens as the club captain, the English side appear to be leaning on the leadership and experience of their South African signings.
James himself has consistently impressed the notoriously fickle English media, and when the time comes to sign off at Bath, there will be many who will be sad to see him go.
But when his playing days are behind him, and he has more time on his hands, does he see himself coming back to England to visit?
“I’d definitely like to come back and visit… in the summer.”
Keith Moore writes for Rugby 365Tweet