Russell James talks about his sporting career with guest writer Fraser Watson

Russell James with his Neyland cricketing teammates

Our guest writer Fraser Watson interviews Neyland’s sporting all-rounder Russell James about his time in cricket, rugby and golf . . .

International honours in cricket, stories aplenty from rugby, and a passion for representing his hometown of Neyland that few have ever matched.

Those who know him have probably already worked out I’m referring to Russell James.

Indeed, James is one of those characters for whom sport has always run through the veins. He was a hard-nosed competitor, he was uncompromising, and he had the ability to boot.

And even now, despite a creaking body and multiple knee operations that restrict him to occasional rounds of golf, the passion still burns bright. Any rugby referee or visiting player to the Neyland Athletic Club in recent years will testify to that.

“When I’m on the sidelines I’ve been known to get a little animated,” he admitted.

“But with the rugby and the cricket I watch as much as I can. I was born and bred in Neyland and even when I lived away I’d come home and play for them in both sports - the town means a lot to me.”

Russell with his late wife PatThat much is obvious. But even for James, the concept of sport, and indeed life itself, was firmly put in perspective in March this year with the death of his wife Pat.

And a man renowned for straight talking wasn’t about to shy away from the impact that’s had on him and his family.

“It’s been a tough time and really difficult for me, the kids and the grandkids to take.

“We were all devastated as you’d expect. And then with all this that’s come afterwards (referring to Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown), it’s been a hard few months for us as a family.”

It was an honest answer, and one which perhaps reflects an honest upbringing.

An early introduction to sport – with no distractions

Growing up, it was all about cricket and rugby. He played football too, but that game never stoked the fires like the other two.

“I was one of four brothers and every night after school we would play cricket in the lane nearby,” he recalled.

“When we weren’t doing that we were up the rugby club. We basically lived in those places.”

And there was little hesitation when I asked why the same didn’t ring true of the younger generation in modern times. In fact he answered, whilst pointing at the I-pad being used to tape our socially distanced conversation.

“When we were young there was nothing else, and you didn’t have those things or Playstations,” he said.

“To a degree, they have taken a large amount of people away from sport. Our only distractions were push bikes and that’s if you were lucky enough to have one.”

After O-Levels in Milford, James would serve an apprenticeship with CEBG on a power station in Penarth.

That involved college in Barry, moves to Swansea and then Burry Port, before returning to the county for work at Pembroke.

But throughout that time, his commitment to winter and summer sports didn’t dwindle and in the oval ball game, he was representing Pembrokeshire at senior level by the age of 24.

“I started out as a scrum half but then switched to back row. At Neyland we had Peter Roberts at No 8, Martin Charles at 7 and me blindside, and we were a pretty nasty unit.”

Despite that admission, James insisted while he retaliated to violence, he wasn’t one for instigating it.

“There were some big players about but I would only hit someone who hit me. No way in this world would I go out to deliberately kick or punch somebody first.”

A day to remember in Rodney Parade

His most memorable rugby day is the sort that modern day amateurs simply don’t experience. A trip to play top flight side Newport RFC in the Welsh Cup.

“I was out on the wing that day and in the centre we had a guy called Lesley Rossiter. He was tenacious beyond belief and between us, we’d tackle anything.

“And it was round the legs, none of this high stuff. Their winger said to me at kick off ‘I’ll have you son’ -but then first tackle I did put him into the stand – you could do that at Rodney Parade as the touch line was close to the seats.”

In midfield for the home side that day was a certain David Burcher, who would go on to be capped by Wales and the Lions.

“Lesley tackled him and they soon took him off because Wales were playing England the following Saturday and they didn’t want him getting hurt.

“We lost 44-4 but became the first team to score against them in the Welsh Cup that season – and they went on to win it.

“We took three bus loads of supporters that day and it was a great occasion. They loved having us there and the hospitality afterwards was absolutely wonderful. They treated us as equals.”

And local league rugby in that period wasn’t bad either.

“They were excellent times. When we played Llangwm, for 80 minutes it was as if the world was coming to an end but when the game was over we were like long lost friends. The social aspect has jittered away now and that’s sad.”

Indeed, romanticising over nostalgia inevitably took us to comparisons to the present day scene.

“I enjoyed Pembrokeshire rugby and there were a lot of tight games – and we still had Aberystwyth and Cardigan for trips.

“But in the last 15 years it has all been about playing for the best teams. Narberth and Whitland started that and now kids will go elsewhere for £25 or £50 a game.

“And you look at Llangwm now, St Davids, and even Neyland this season, they’re having a lot of hammerings and it’s great pity. There’s not enough people of the right age for a youth team here now which is bloody awful.”

I couldn’t shirk the topics of referees either, for whom James has been known to be less than sympathetic.

“They tend to dictate too much and can be petty and narrow minded. It is hard because you have a job to get them, but when you do a lot of them are poor.

“But I shouldn’t be derogatory as they do the job and we all have to be thankful about that.

“In our era they had more understanding of what happened in rugby though. And I could be a horror too I admit – I had too much to say and thought I was always right.”

Of course his son Mark is one renowned for being Neyland through and through. For two decades he’s been a great servant to the All Blacks at senior level, albeit with the odd yellow card along the way.

“I do shout at him after a card because he’s one of the experienced players now. When you’re on the pitch with 15 you have a much better chance and losing someone makes it harder.

“But he lives and breathes Neyland and loves playing for the club.”

Although when I questioned what would have happened if yellow cards had been around in his day, James did pause and smile wryly – and then reflected on only being sent off twice.

Hitch hiking home for cricket

Knee injuries would curtail his rugby at the age of 30, but his cricket continued. In fact, it’s fair to say his most significant sporting achievements came with a red ball in hand.

And his dedication knew no bounds. He had no car when in college in Barry, but that didn’t stop him playing midweek Harrison-Allen or Duggie Morris games.

“My lecturer would drop me at Culverhouse Cross at 3.30pm and then I would hitchhike to Neyland. After the game Stuart Watts would drive me as far as Carmarthen and I’d hitch back from there.

“Wattsy was a good man. He’d go out of his way for people.”

On one particular occasion, he was picked up by none other than Bill Carne. Not surprising given by that point, Bill knew full well how seriously James took his cricket.

“In Cardiff on a Wednesday and Friday night there were games on the park in Sofia Gardens. Bill was playing in one game where I hit a tail-ender in the ghoulies.

“The bloke wasn’t wearing a box and was bleeding afterwards. Their captain, who was an ‘awfully nice chap’, wanted the game stopped but I said it wasn’t my fault he had no protection so let’s get on with it.”

Yes, to say James took no prisoners with the new ball borders on ludicrous understatement. And back home, he and Tommy Jones would form a formidable pair that blew away many a top order.

But only after Neyland captain Colin Davies taught him a vital lesson as a youngster.

“I was playing for the firsts at 17 and in one game Colin sent me down to third man. For eight overs I went back and for without getting a bowl so I asked what was wrong.

“Colin told me that I could bowl when I started concentrating on my line and length. I always remembered that.

“Yes I would slip the odd short ball in and cold bowl an inswinger, outswinger or yorker if I wanted to. But I focused on accuracy and we would win a lot of games off the back of me and Tommy.

“Kids these days can bowl very quickly in certain cases. But often they lack control.”

James would go on to win a Division 1 title with Neyland and in 1983 captained the club to a Harrison-Allen Bowl win against Cresselly, duly showing his all-round prowess in the process.

“I took wickets in both innings of that final and then scored 49 before Gareth Thomas ran me out.

“I didn’t bat correctly as such but I always had a good eye. I’d take the ball from outside off stick it back through mid-on. It was a matter of timing with me.

“But I was an all rounder and I practiced fielding a hell of a lot as well.”

That side contained plenty of class with the likes of Jackie Capon and Phil Sutton, and enjoyed a close knit bond that James remembers fondly.

“We would always have a great time socially.

“Yes, you would have players who might leave for Llangwm and Burton, but there were men like Wattsy, Owain Picton, John Laugharne – to them Neyland was the only club in the world.”

But it wasn’t just at club level where James tasted success. He was capped by the county at 21, and memorably took eight wickets in a representative game against Cardiff Cricket Club.

Red ball experiences abroad

In 1980, he toured Barbados with the Pembrokeshire Wanderers and encountered some household names.

“We played against the likes of Joel Garner and had a wonderful time. There was beer there at the time called Banks Brewery – we drank a lot of that too.

“Capon was on that tour as well. He was so talented and growing up had played for Kent Schoolboys’ with Alan Knott and Derek Underwood. I never forget one game where he went in and hit his first two balls for six.

“Their fast bowler then said ‘I’ve got his weak point now, he’s had it’. Next ball he steamed in and clean bowled him – the stumps went all over the place.”

James would later have cartilage removed from his knee but managed to adapt his bowling style accordingly, and as well as also touring Scotland with the county team, national selectors came calling too.

He played twice for Wales, once against an Old Collegians side that was led by future Austrlian captain Kim Hughes, and also included Steve Bernard who would go on to briefly keep Jeff Thomson out the Queensland team.

He would continue playing until the age of 36, when work with the Abaco Oil company saw him stationed in Saudi Arabia. It’s there he would spend 27 years of his life and although Pat and the children later returned home for schooling purposes, they would all still travel out to Saudi for regular visits before James himself retired back to Neyland in 2013.

“I played some cricket out there and it was enjoyable.

“Wickets were artificial and we had players from all over – British ex-pats, Pakistanis, West Indians. We had a tremendous time socially too.”

Life in retirement

Post cricket, golf has filled a void. Once a nine handicapper, the knees have hindered how frequently he plays in recent times, but it’s game he’s able to enjoy without pressure.

“I curse myself on the course but I don’t curse anybody else. If I play badly it’s my own fault.
“I play to win don’t get me wrong. But I don’t take it as seriously as I did cricket as rugby.”

Maybe not, but sport clearly still flickers the flame. James now has three grandchildren and with Mark’s son Josh playing locally, is able to watch and support him as well as the town’s senior teams.

 “He’s mad on sport,” says James, with a broad smile that indicates he approves.

“My brother Michael played for Swansea and is involved with the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium so he’s come with me a few times there to watch rugby.

“He loves the place and knows everyone. He tells me more about Welsh rugby than I can tell him.

“But he plays rugby, football, and I’ve brought him a bat to play cricket. His father can be tough on him but nothing nasty, he just wants him to do well.”

But what of the current outlook on local sport? James has been there, done it, and seen times change. I suspected he would agree with the concept that society has gone somewhat soft.

I suspected right.

“You can’t go telling every child or person they are a great player. But it’s like you can’t shout at people now – and that’s the political correctness which has just got stupid.

“Different approaches work for different people and it would be sad if we were all the same.”

And can we rebuild the social side of the game that for James and former teammates, holds so many fond memories? Or the desire to play that at one time formed the backbone of Pembrokeshire sport?

“I still think cricket around here is in a good way. Neyland have three teams which is important because it means everybody gets a game – and that builds the social side of things.

“Rugby is more difficult because people are interested in other things now. It’s sad as the county used to play a lot of rugby and we had people like Barry Llewellyn who played prop for Wales. It will be very hard to get the prestige of that back.

“And the same with football – there doesn’t seem to be any mixing. Players will have one pint after a game then they’re gone."

No regrets

At 69, the immediate road ahead won’t be easy for James as he adapts to life without Pat. The pain is evident, and yet so is the strength of character that clearly served him well in his sporting days.

And are there any regrets from his competitive career?

Of course not.

“I wouldn’t have changed any of it.

“I always remember going to my nurse to get tablets for my knee pain and telling her I thought I was invincible until now. She said ‘take the tablets and you will remain invincible’ – and I believed that.

“But when it comes to sport I still love anything Pembrokeshire and especially, anything Neyland.”
If ever a departing line summarised a man, it’s that one.