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Wilson: 'Goodbye Bath, hello Japan'

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'You get stars that get all the attention, but I'm more than happy to just plug along, keep the head down and still succeed'

James Wilson knows the drill. Bath will play their final Premiership game of the season on Saturday and that will be that, his time at the club will be over.

It was exactly this same situation a year ago. Salary cap manoeuvrings meant Todd Blackadder couldn’t keep a spot on the roster for his fellow New Zealander. He was surplus to requirement, but wasn’t left in the lurch.

His forced exit from England generated the opportunity to nostalgically return to where it all would have started back in 2003, on the beat with his native Southland in the provincial championship. Blackadder, though, hadn’t deleted the Kiwi’s number and when injuries meant some emergency winter cover was required at The Rec, Wilson was only too willing to return.

“You never know what is going to happen around the corner, and you can take my example,” he told RugbyPass. “I wanted to stay, unfortunately I couldn’t… they [Bath] sort of play on the edge a bit (with salary cap) and unfortunately I couldn’t stick around.

“But I managed to get home and play some rugby, help out my province. I was very grateful for that opportunity and then Todd, with a few injuries, asked me back over. I was more than happy to help out.”

Now comes a second parting of the ways – and again he won’t be at a loose end. A Top League offer from newly promoted Mitsubishi Sagamihara DynaBoars will mean he will celebrate his 36th birthday in July still playing away in Japan. Not bad at all for a utility back some would consider the epitome of a journeyman pro.

Thing is, Wilson knows his place in the pecking order and wouldn’t change a career that taken him all over the place. From the Brumbies in Australia to New Zealand’s Highlanders and Chiefs and onto Bourgoin in France before making England his home since 2012, his time at Northampton and Bath separated by a dabble in the Championship with Bedford.

He accepts the sport thrives on its star names, but his lengthy journey demonstrates it also has plenty job satisfaction for those below the big earners in the pecking order.

“I owe the game so much,” he said enthusiastically. “It has given me so many opportunities coming from a small town in New Zealand (Invercargill) and to get to play on the biggest stage over here in Europe, it’s unbelievable. You get the stars that come over and get all the attention, but I’m more than happy to just plug along, keep the head down and still succeed.”

His attitude has proven his biggest strength, the characteristic that continues to make him stand out in the crowded marketplace where so many southern hemisphere players aspire to getting contracts on the other side of the equator.

“For me it’s my work ethic,” he explained when asked the secret of his longevity. “I want to achieve and do these things and, simple enough, if I want to them I have to work to achieve.

Manawatu’s Antonio Kiri Kiri is tackled by Southland’s James Wilson in the Mitre 10 Cup last October in Palmerston North (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“I have to look after the way my body is, especially nowadays. It’s definitely not what it was 10 years ago, but if you work on it and keep to maintained then you’re still going to be able to play the game that you love, do it every day and keep up with these guys. It’s just work ethic. It’s simple yet so effective.

“I have had my fair share of injuries and not being involved in teams or missing selections, everything like that, but I have just stuck to it really. I have just put the head down and just worked.

“I really enjoy playing rugby and it’s definitely a great thing. I absolutely love it and I still do – I still want to continue playing and do great things. I have made some great memories over the years and I’m fortunate to play with some fantastic players, some of the best in the world who would have gone on and won some great things.”

Bath’s James Wilson gets the jump on Leicester’s Adam Thompstone at Twickenham in April 2018 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Wilson has done the rounds in Australia, New Zealand, France and England, experienced so many different cultures at his eight different clubs, yet is still fighting the good fight despite the regular upheaval. The moral of his story? The language of rugby is universal no matter where you play.

“I have experienced all these different cultures, but when it comes to rugby everything is just so similar. It’s the same values across the board no matter where you play and no matter what country. I’m moving to Japan at the end of this season, so it’s going to be another new experience, another new culture, but yet I know that it will be so similar and that is why I am comfortable doing it.

“Also, I embrace all these different cultures. I know the game like the back of my hand so on the field is fine. The off the field stuff is just settling in, learning the culture and the people and getting to know the community. As a rugby player the thing you really need to adjust to is just getting out there and experiencing all of that. It makes what you do on the field so much easier if you go out and do that.

“Mitsubishi DynaBoars have just been promoted, so it’s going to be a fantastic challenge. It’s going to be great to experience Japan during the Work Cup, to see how the Japanese people take on board all the cultures that are coming over.

“They have got the Olympics there in 2020, so it’s like a warm-up for that, getting everyone from all around the world over to experience what is a new game for them. Rugby has been around there for a number of years, but to see it there on a massive scale is going to be some experience.”

What planted the seed to travel the world playing rugby and enthusiastically make Kanagawa his next stop was the presence of stardust in his isolated South Island upbringing. “I was a kid a long, long time ago, but I used to run on the field after the games and get signatures. It was great stuff.

Southland’s Simon Culhane in action versus Waikato in a Ranfurly Shield match (Photo by Ross Setford/Getty Images)

“I remember Simon Culhane, who was local to my town. He was only small stature but he played well above his weight, that was for sure, and he went on and did great things with the All Blacks, especially in the ’95 World Cup. He was a star that I looked up and over the years we have become quite close friends.

“These things start young but if you continue to play rugby and have a career out of it, you make doing lasting friendships and meet some great people.”

Without hesitation, he would recommend to any wide-eyed Kiwis looking to travel and play to readily embrace the English way. “The Premiership is tough, very physical and the season is long. Super Rugby is fast but it’s short and isn’t as physical and taxing.

James Wilson dives over to score against London Welsh during his Northampton Saints days (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

“There is the travel you have to do with the Super Rugby, which has pros and cons. You go away and see new places, but the body doesn’t really like to travel that much. It takes a toll that way, but the way they game is here, the way it is supported and the crowds you get in Europe, it’s just fantastic.

“It’s a great place to come and play rugby. I definitely would recommend it to everyone back home if they get the opportunity.”

Seven years after he first arrived in England, Wilson’s stay is now over and he will leave for Japan with regret that Bath haven’t done the business this season. Having finished in sixth last season with 11 wins in 22 matches, they had hoped to greatly improve this term and make the play-offs.

However, that desired improvement hasn’t materialised and they head to Welford Road on Saturday clinging onto sixth place in a campaign where they have won just nine times.

“The inconsistencies are a frustrating thing,” shrugged Wilson, who hasn’t featured in Blackadder’s line-up since January as the casualties he filled in made their return. “We should have been a lot higher than we are. We aren’t happy where we are. We wanted to finish higher.”

WATCH: Part one of the RugbyPass documentary on what fans can expect at the 2019 World Cup in Japan

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'You get stars that get all the attention, but I'm more than happy to just plug along, keep the head down and still succeed'