‘Matured’ Tom James eyes dream Wales return

Tom James says he needed to become “the forgotten man of Welsh rugby” during a rebuilding spell in his rugby career.

‘Matured’ Tom James eyes dream Wales return

The Cardiff Blues wing will make his first Test match appearance for more than five years when Wales launch their RBS 6 Nations campaign against Ireland in Dublin on Sunday.

Wales have played 65 Tests since James won the last of his 10 caps against New Zealand in November 2010.

But two seasons spent with Aviva Premiership club Exeter helped his renaissance before rejoining the Blues last summer and maintaining prodigious try-scoring form.

Earlier in 2010, James briefly withdrew himself from Wales squad activity ahead of a Six Nations finale against Italy after being overlooked for selection, while he had also reportedly voiced displeasure over selection during Wales’ two-Test South Africa tour two years previously.

“I was in the goldfish bowl and needed to get away,” James said. “I needed to get away and become the forgotten man of Welsh rugby.

“But you always want to play for your country, and in my second season at Exeter, after a few good games, I was hopeful the call would come. It didn’t, but I carried on working and it has paid off.

“Moving away to Exeter and working with different coaches, I improved my all-round game. I’ve come back and everyone has seen a difference.

“When I was younger, you make mistakes. I’ve gone away, grown up and matured as a person.

“Even at the time I made those mistakes, I spoke to them (coaches) afterwards, and there were no hard feelings. I wasn’t playing well at the time, so I didn’t get selected. I was lucky enough to move away, and I’ve secured myself recognition again.”

James has claimed eight tries in 12 games for the Blues this season, while he is their all-time top try scorer with 47 touchdowns, and such consistent electrifying form has earned him a Wales recall.

“As soon as I have the ball in my hands, I have the confidence that I can beat anyone,” he added. “Hopefully, I can show that in a way that I didn’t show when I played for Wales in the past. It (facing Ireland on Sunday) is going to be the same as winning my first cap. Every time you play for Wales you get the same adrenalin and the same buzz.”

James’ recall has been welcomed by his Blues colleague and Wales captain Sam Warburton.

“Back in 2009 and 2010, Tom was awesome for the Blues in the European runs they had. He has matured massively after going to Exeter and coming back,” Warburton said.

“He is an extremely good pro now, very diligent. He has moved to Cardiff and has a young kid on the way, which puts things into perspective.

“He has been outstanding for the Blues, and not just on the field, the way he is with the younger guys. He is an experienced player now, he has played a lot of regional rugby and club rugby in England and has international experience.

“At 28, he is probably in his prime physically, and you see that when he is training in the gym or on the field - he is an absolutely brilliant athlete.

“You see New Zealand with Maori wingers who are explosive and unpredictable. Tom is our equivalent with his power, and he is a very exciting player to watch.”

Wales boss Warren Gatland has hailed Tom James’ revival as the wing prepares to end a five-year Test exile.

“I think he has grown up and matured fantastically well as a person and a player. He has come back, and his form for the Blues has been outstanding, so he has been selected on merit.

“He was unlucky not to be involved at the (2015) World Cup due to injuries. His form has been excellent, and he deserves his opportunity to come back into the Welsh team.”

Gatland has also handed starts to the likes of Blues full-back Gareth Anscombe, Scarlets prop Rob Evans and Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric, with Wales captain Sam Warburton moving from openside to blindside flanker in Dublin and a powerful bench featuring Lions trio Alex Cuthbert, Gethin Jenkins and Dan Lydiate.

Centre Jonathan Davies, who missed the World Cup last autumn because of a knee ligament injury, is reunited in midfield with Jamie Roberts.

But there is no place in the match-day 23 for full-back Liam Williams, who began his comeback from a foot injury by playing 60 minutes for the Scarlets last Saturday, having been sidelined since the World Cup.

Lydiate, meanwhile, has been out for just over a month with a shoulder/neck problem, but Tipuric’s outstanding form for the Ospreys probably demanded inclusion anyway, and Warburton is no stranger to the blindside role.

Assessing Ireland’s challenge, meanwhile, Gatland added: “I suppose the template for them is the way they played against us two years ago when we went to the Aviva Stadium and they played us off the park. We were well-beaten that day.

“They dominated territory and possession, and we didn’t handle their kicking game. We are expecting the same again from them a little bit because it has been very successful, so we’ve got to make sure we handle that as a team.

“They (Ireland) have won the championship in the last two years, and we respect them tremendously as a team. They are going to be particularly tough at home. For both teams, this opening game of the tournament is really important. There is a lot of pressure in professional sport to perform and get results, and we want to start this tournament well. If we can win, it will hopefully put us in a positive step for the rest of the tournament.”

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