How old where you when you joined your first Rugby club and what was it called?
I was five years old, my mum may have lied about my age and signed me up for the under-7’s and it was called Maidenhead Rugby Club.
What do you remember about the club? (the atmosphere, culture, social aspects, how it was run, the people you met there?)
Well firstly, I think my mum thought it was the perfect crime! That she could get me out of the house to stop me causing trouble and my Dad could take me and my little brother down there and my Dad could have a beer on the weekend as licensing laws were a bit different back in the day! The club was incredible and very community-orientated, with loads of little kids running around just having fun not really sure what they were doing! You’d have a lot of characters going up to the bar afterwards and getting a pint of squash and buying a Chomp – they used to be 10p and now they’re about £1…having a hot dog and meeting people and making friends...just really being part of a community.
How important was this grassroots introduction to sport in your personal development and in becoming a professional athlete?
I think club Rugby was massively important when talking about my personal development. I’d played with the team since I was 5 until 18 and I still played for the club when I was at school, some weekend I’d play two games which was mad! I think I’d be in a wheelchair now if I had to do that! It’s also about meeting lots of characters and playing with different people…I always played my rugby at school and then having that as a secondary thing playing with different players helped you develop, seeing different things going on and travelling for away games and understanding what club Rugby was all about. I got into professional Rugby from the age of 16 really being involved with Wasps, but I still played for Maidenhead and still had that involvement that kept me grounded and showed me the traditional side of Rugby and for that I’m eternally grateful to them.
What is your fondest memory of sport when you were younger?
There’s a couple of memories really, my first was my first ever training session…I got passed the ball and wasn’t necessarily sure what I was doing…I ran around one bloke, side-steppd another one and ran around another and I scored! It was only when a parent looked down at me and called me a ‘silly boy’ that I realised I scored behind my own try line which was not ideal! I also think for me going back playing at school and playing in the Colts cup, we played London Irish one year and Bath another year and we beat London Irish which was massive for the club because they were professional and we were only amateur so that was a big occasion for us.
Is there a particular volunteer/club member from anywhere along your incredible journey that made a real impact in your life? Is there anything you would like to say to them?
There’s been a couple of guys who have been great mentors for me, but there’s one man in particular, who’s sadly passed away actually was a guy called Gordon McDonald who was at Maidenhead; he was my coach for a number of years and was always very complimentary and supportive and the other coaches who worked with him was super as well really. Out of all my club rugby years, from the ages of 15-18 were some of my most enjoyable where we had the best tournaments and trips with these guys.
Do you plan on volunteering your time and giving back to the sport that made you the man you are today?
I do already, I’ve done a few bits with Maidenhead Rugby club. I get asked quite a lot to do coaching and I try to do as much as I can as it’s obviously very important
Is there any message you’d like to give to the volunteers who help run thousands of sports clubs up and down the country?
I would say you’re all doing an incredible job, it’s really valued! Rugby is such a unique sport that helps people of any kind of age, culture, creed learn some valuable lessons, play a great game people enjoy. I think it’s important to keep a lot of the traditions, the touring and all the fun bits about rugby alive. I think they all do a great job and I would just like to say thank you.
James’ book Perfect Fit: The Winning Formula is available to buy from Waterstones and online from Amazon.co.uk or jameshaskell.com