Last summer, Brock James joined La Rochelle after a decade at Top 14 rivals Clermont. He spoke to James Harrington about his new club’s remarkable season, the future, why he left Australia – and how he nearly played for France
In 2006, after just 13 Super Rugby appearances for two clubs in two seasons, Brock James left Australia for a new life in the French Top 14.
Two clubs, 11 years, 314 matches, and 2,705 points later, he is on the verge of completing a remarkable debut season with La Rochelle, the side he joined at the end of last season following a decade with Clermont.
“I was actually looking for a bit of security in my old age,” he said of his summer switch from the perennial Top 14 high flyers to a side that has languished in the lower reaches of the French top flight since winning promotion in 2014.
“Clermont were quite open about the fact that they were looking for someone younger to step into my place, so they were keen to sign me for just one year.
“I knew Patricio Fernandez was coming along nicely, and I wasn’t sure if I would get two more years as a player if I had to sign a new contracts each year. La Rochelle were keen to get me over here for two years – that played a big part.
“After 10 years in one place, a bit of change of scenery and a change of ideas has been quite a good thing for my head. I’m enjoying my rugby at the moment.”
Top 14 signing of the season?
Despite what James said, this has been no easy pension plan boost. The 35-year-old has arguably been the Top 14 signing of the season and is clearly relishing his elder statesman role at the club.
He has scored 222 points in 25 outings in the black and yellow, and his arrival coincided with the start of a campaign that could be likened to Leicester City’s march to soccer’s English Premier League title last season.
La Rochelle had finished ninth in the past two seasons, and were pretty much written off by pundits and armchair experts ahead of this campaign. But, going into the final four rounds of the regular season, Les Corsaires are 11 points clear of James’s former club at the top of the table. They have already qualified for the end-of-season play-offs, and will face English Premiership side Gloucester in the semi-finals of the European Challenge Cup in front of their passionate fans at Stade Marcel Deflandre.
La Rochelle, who are at home to Bordeaux in the Aquitaine derby this weekend, just keep winning. They have not lost a Top 14 match since November – and have beaten the likes of Toulon, Toulouse and Castres Olympique on the road. James said: “I think we’re just enjoying our rugby, enjoying playing together and I think it shows.
“I think one of our strengths this season so far has been we take each game as it comes. We haven’t planned too far ahead, even if we’ve won two or three games on the trot, we’re always focused only on the next game. I think if we keep that recipe, there’s no reason we can’t compete on two fronts.”
James is clear about which of the two titles La Rochelle are chasing would mean more to him: “It’s been a while since I’ve had success in Europe – I won the Challenge Cup with Clermont in 2007. But I think the Top 14 [which he won with Clermont in 2010], with the challenges throughout the season, and with it being such a long season, to be in the situation we’re in at the moment, that’s the most exciting.”
History would have been very different if the decision to leave Australia had not effectively been made for him: “The door there was pretty much closed on me,” he said. “I was at the Western Force, and the coach and the CEO both told me I was well down the ladder.
“It was the year they recruited Matt Giteau and they ranked me as the fifth-best number 10 at the club. So they invited me to look for other opportunities.
“That’s when Clermont came in. With my wife, we decided to give it a go – and, 11 years later, we’re still here in France. Obviously we’re enjoying our time here, and it’s not quite finished yet. It’s almost the same picture as the team this year. We’re just taking everything as it comes.”
‘As it comes’ has included recently taking coaching qualifications for when he does finally hang up his boots, though James said that he does not know how, when or where he might end up coaching. A return to Australia is an option. “I won’t shut the door on any possibility. My kids were born here, we’re pretty comfortable and we’re enjoying France, so we’re not in any hurry to go anywhere – but I won’t shut the door on any opportunities.”
In his first season at Clermont in 2006/07, James played every game, and was the Top 14’s leading scorer, with 380 points. Two seasons later, between January 4 and March 28, 2009, he landed 41 consecutive kicks at goal to set a Top 14 record that has still to be broken. It was three shy of Welsh goalkicker Neil Jenkins’ world record.
That streak led to him being named as one of the 50 best players in the world by British newspaper The Independent at the end of the northern hemisphere season. He was the only one on that list to have no senior international caps.
He had represented Australia at under-16, under-19, and under-21 level, but his move to France put paid to his senior international chances, with the Wallabies then operating a strict no-overseas player policy. But James admits his chances of wearing the gold jersey were slim.
“In Australia it was never really going to happen – that was made pretty clear to me. I loved playing for Australia, I loved representing my country. But, I have no regrets.”
In fact, he nearly ended up playing for France nine years later. At the start of the 2014/15 Top 14 season, his name was reportedly included on a list of 10 foreign players that then-coach Philippe Saint-André was considering as possible recruits ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
James said: “It was all quite smoky, really. But I spoke to [France’s backs and defence coach] Patrice Lagisquet to say that I was interested if ever the interest was reciprocated.”
The offer never materialised – and James thinks he knows why: “I ended up having a shocker, and Camille (Lopez) ended up playing most of the first half of the season, so I never ended up getting a call back.”
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