Paul James is talking about the scrum. It’s not just his favourite facet of the game but the one he believes he’s best at; he loves the close quarters combat of scrummaging. This season, however, the scrum has become a contentious issue. Spectators are now likely to see more collapses and resets than actual scrums at the top level of the game, and the issue needs to be addressed. What’s the point of raving about the fact the ball is in play more than ever before if that ball is in a scrum-half’s hands for much of the time while the front rows continually drag themselves up off the turf? James has a straightforward solution.
“The scrum can be very simple or very difficult,” explains the 28-year-old Ospreys and Wales prop. “If both teams hit square and push straight, it’s simple. But obviously a lot of players like to hit certain angles to survive and cheat – and get away with it. It’s a tough job for referees, but if they get people to stay square and scrummage straight, they’ll see a lot of success.
“The scrummage is a massive part of the game and it’s down to the referees to get a better understanding. It’s really frustrating as a player when we’re trying to scrummage square and other teams are hitting an angle or going down, and the penalty goes against us.
“It’d be beneficial for the game if referees turned up to training sessions to look at scrums or asked front-rowers things. Then they’d gain a lot more knowledge. Unless they talk to players in the front row or have played there themselves, they’ll never understand it.”
James doesn’t want to preach about the rights and wrongs of the set-piece, after all, he says, “no prop’s whiter than white”, but he does want the scrum to stay up so he can make the most of his strength in that department. And that strength will be put to the test over the coming weeks as he turns out in the Welsh front row during the RBS 6 Nations. Wales’ front five has proved dominant of late but with first-choice props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones ruled out through injury, the pressure is on James to ensure that the men in red can still hold their own up front against Europe’s best.
James won his first cap in 2003 in one of Wales’ World Cup warm-up games, but he had to wait more than six years to play in his second Test, Warren Gatland giving him the opportunity in the autumn of 2009 when Jones was again out injured. James admits he made a conscious effort that season to enhance his international credentials so he could shed the ‘one-cap wonder’ tag.
“It was at the beginning of last season that I set myself targets,” he says. “It had been six years since my cap and I wasn’t getting any younger so once I went into that pre-season I really wanted to push it. I trained hard all summer to get fitter and stronger and get back in the squad.
“It was unfortunate that boys got injured but that opened the window for other players and I took my chance. I’ve put a lot of work into my scrummaging and I’m working on other areas of my game too. The front row do extras together at the Ospreys – just to keep on top of things and keep improving.”
That extra work includes ‘Prowler sessions’. While the name might suggest players trawl the streets of Swansea late at night, it actually involves dragging a sled loaded with weight. “It makes you fit,” he says succinctly. All those additional hours have paid off, although James did have to switch from the No 1 shirt to the No 3 when he made his Wales comeback against New Zealand in the 2009 autumn Tests.
“I’ll openly admit I’m an out-and-out loosehead, but I’ll play anywhere for my country and I was just really happy to get back in the squad,” says James. So is it really that difficult to swap sides in the scrum? “If you’ve always been a tighthead there’s nothing to it, it comes naturally. But if you’re a loosehead and you’re trying to play tighthead it’s like being right-handed and trying to write left-handed – that’s the only way I can describe it. It’s totally different, but I’ve had a few outings there now and I think I held my own.”
There’s no doubting the talents of Jones and Jenkins so it’s little surprise that James is always seen as the stand-in when one of the pair is injured. However, with both Lions, and Jenkins in particular, enduring spells on the sidelines in the past 18 months, James is the only player to have featured in all of Wales’ last 16 Tests, starting 13 of them. So he’s perhaps more integral to this Wales team than many would believe – and he’s ready to change that perception.
“My first goal was to get into the squad. I was happy enough to get in and I’ve played lots of games lately. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to play during the Six Nations and I’d love to try to cement the jersey as my own rather than slotting in and covering for injured players.”
So James has set himself a big challenge for the Six Nations.
This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine
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