'There is passion here that I have not experienced'

Butch James tasted World Cup glory with South Africa but has enjoyed a new lease of life since taking the plunge with Bath. Chris Hewett met him as he prepared for a tilt at another trophy
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The Independent Online

Whatever Jonny Wilkinson may say to the contrary, the gods of rugby did not lovingly create the outside-half position with kamikaze crash-tacklers in mind. Ask the Welsh, who have produced more No 10s of genius than any other country on earth. Phil Bennett was not overly keen on the physical stuff; nor was Arwel Thomas, a maestro without muscle who could barely venture within six feet of a passing prop without being blown away on the breeze. As for Barry John – well, he learned a thing or two about himself very early in his career.

In Alun Richards' beautifully written memoir of the late Carwyn James, an international stand-off as well as the most revered of all union coaches, John tells the following story about skipping school to turn out for a local police team. "The police were playing Laugharne and my brother Del, a more experienced player than me, had warned, 'Stay home, Barry, it'll be damned rough.' He was right. I needed all my skill as an artful dodger. Soon after the match started, I fielded the ball and called out 'mark', only to see the Laugharne full-back bearing down on me like a train and clearly unstoppable. No time to dodge. I raised my foot in self-defence and he collapsed like a shot stag."

While Mr Andrew James of Johannesburg would undoubtedly have brought the full-back to ground in equally decisive fashion, his method would have been entirely different. "Butch", as he has been known all his life – "My grandmother called me that right from when I was a baby, because she thought I was a bit on the boisterous side" – would have smithereened the poor sod with a full-frontal chest smash, or poleaxed him with a horizontal hit at something approaching shoulder height. He enjoys a tackle, does Butch. The more the merrier, in fact.

Does this make him less of a 10 than Barry or Benny or Arwel? His fellow South Africans, whom he helped to a world title last October, do not think so. Neither do Bath, for whom he has performed quite brilliantly over the last seven months. During the global gathering in France, the Springbok coach, Jake White, repeatedly extolled his virtues as a footballer, an organiser, a tactician. Steve Meehan, who brought him to the Recreation Ground, does likewise, drawing attention to the potency of his kicking game and the subtlety of his distribution, which increasingly features all manner of clever little slipaways and behind-the-back flip-passes – in short, the full range of "open sesame" stuff.

Tomorrow at Kingsholm, where Bath fell at the last in the league a fortnight ago, thereby lumbering themselves with a Premiership play-off trip to Wasps they predictably failed to survive, James will attempt to inspire his club to a first trophy in a decade by concocting a way of beating Worcester in the final of the European Challenge Cup. The lack of silverware has burned in the veins of the West Countrymen long enough, and while the Springbok is a relative newcomer to the Georgian city, he feels the heat like everyone else.

"I can't say if this means as much to me as it means to people who have been here years, like Steve Borthwick or David Barnes or the youngsters who have worked their way up through the academy," he said this week, "but I can assure you it means a great deal. We're all hurting as a result of those defeats in the last couple of games, and I certainly don't believe I'm hurting any less than the other guys in the dressing room. I hate losing. Always have, always will.

"And anyway, I love this place, absolutely – the Rec, the city, the whole thing. There is something awesome about playing for a club with so much history, whose fortunes matter so much to the people who live around and about. Every matchday is a special day. I came here from Durban, and Durban is a big rugby town. The Sharks play at a stadium that holds 54,000 people, and they usually pull in a crowd of around 35,000. Yet when there are 10,000 at the Rec, there is a degree of passion I haven't experienced before. I get the feeling that if Bath ever build themselves a stadium that holds 35,000, they'll fill it every week."

Few Recreation Grounders knew for sure what they could expect from James when news of his signing was confirmed. The pessimists – and there were plenty of them, some of whom had held senior positions at the club in the none-too-distant past – wondered whether Bath really needed a powerhouse No 10 with a gung-ho reputation operating behind a powerhouse, gung-ho pack of forwards. Two things changed their view: firstly, immediate proof that James had broadened his range of skills far beyond the limits of old; and secondly, his dovetailing with another South African recruit, Michael Claassens, whose work at scrum-half has been spectacularly effective.

"We never played together once during all our time back home," James said, "but I knew plenty about Michael, of course. He's some player. And with Olly Barkley performing so well on the other side of me, life's been pretty easy. All I have to do is pass the ball to the right guy at the right moment."

Ah, Barkley. A few words about him, perhaps, before he pushes off to Gloucester for the new season? "He's a talent, for sure, and if England put the best people around him, he'll be a big player for them. I'm sorry he's going – sorry that this final will be his last game for the club. I think we hit it off pretty well during our time together."

Like Barkley, who must travel with England to All Black country for some summer Test activity before putting his feet up, James will soon be back between the shafts at Test level. The Springboks want him for their forthcoming matches with Wales and Italy, much to his relief. The idea that there was any debate about his participation may seem peculiar to those who witnessed his calm and accomplished performances in the World Cup, but White's painful departure in the aftermath of victory and the unexpected appointment of Peter de Villiers to the top job led to some serious instability of a political – and, therefore, selectorial – nature.

"When I signed for Bath, I more or less assumed that I wouldn't be selected for the Springboks again," James said. "I'm pleased to be involved in the new coach's first training squad – playing for my country is the ultimate honour – but even now, I wonder what would have happened if some of those outside-halves playing their rugby in South Africa had really put up their hands and demanded to be picked. There are some new No 10s in the squad" – Peter Grant, Earl Rose, Isma-eel Dollie – "but they're not the most experienced, and that gives me another opportunity. But those of us playing abroad will get pushed out sooner or later, because we won't be seen by the people who matter. I understand that. Whatever a player decides to do with his career, he sacrifices something."

James is 29 now, so his prospects of making it to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand are less than great. If he falls short, the sight of the 2007 winners' medal hanging from his bedroom doorknob will help him live with the disappointment. It was quite some adventure he undertook back in the autumn, full of emotional extremes. Together with the likes of Percy Montgomery, Os du Randt, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and the captain, John Smit, he arrived in France confident of reaching the final. What he could not be sure of were the Boks' chances once they got there.

"It wasn't until the first day of the knock-out stage, when the All Blacks and the Australians disappeared from the tournament, that a real sense of belief kicked in – a sense that we could and should win the trophy," he said. "We were more worried about the Wallabies than about anyone else, because we'd just played them in the Tri-Nations and felt they'd given us the toughest matches. I can't say we were disappointed when England beat them in the quarter-finals, and when the New Zealanders went that same evening... let's say we felt we were in business.

"There again, we played Fiji the next day, and they gave us all the trouble we could handle. For 15 minutes in the second half we were up against the wall: let's face it, when a team like Fiji get their tails up with 80 per cent of the crowd behind them, it's problem time. We came through, though. We didn't panic, we showed trust in each other and we dealt with it. Winning that tournament was massive. It makes me smile, just thinking about it. Mind you, I had to put it behind me pretty quickly, A week after the final, I was preparing to play my first game for Bath."

A final in October, a final tomorrow. It has been quite a season. But does this match really excite him, given that the World Cup, the cash cow of the union code, is in an altogether different league to the Challenge Cup, which cannot even attract a title sponsor? Can James really approach a tussle with Worcester in the way he approached that climactic meeting with England in Paris?

"The simple answer? Yes," he said. "It's a final, and finals have things in common. The World Cup was then, the Challenge Cup is now. I'm as determined to win this one as I was to win back in October. As I say: I hate losing."