The hours meant he had to rise at four in the morning to go for a run before
heading to work and then he would do more training once he had clocked off.
"It was killing me," says James. "If I was getting paid to do athletics it
would have been easier, but it was just getting harder and harder. I quit
after my 18th birthday."
That was when James decided to return to the sport he had played as a child. Having watched Wales win the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2005, he was inspired to pick up a rugby ball again and joined Merthyr Tydfil, where his try-scoring prowess on the wing soon became apparent.
"I knew that if I wanted to go anywhere I had to be playing in one of the
top leagues, so I took up rugby at Merthyr," he says. "I scored a lot of
tries, then got the chance to go into the Cardiff Blues academy."
From there he never looked backed, scoring 11 tries in nine games for Welsh Premiership side Cardiff early last season before being moved into the Blues first-team squad. He went on to represent Wales at sevens and U20s level and, although he only touched down three times for the Blues that season, Gareth Jenkins had seen enough to select him for the senior tour to Australia last summer. But this is when the foundations start to look shaky. James, 20, had been playing top-flight rugby for less than a year and that lack of experience threatened to find him wanting in the intense atmosphere of a Test match, especially one in Australia. In the end he was never put to the test because James didn¹t even make the bench for either game. So was Jenkins right to take him Down Under?
"I thought it was too early," admits James. "I thought to myself that I
Wasn't ready, but they wanted to take me on tour and I couldn't say no to my
country. I didn't get any game time and they must have known they weren¹t
going to play me. It was just training, training, training. I spent most
of the time holding tackle bags."
It was much the same when James got back home and, after a couple of weeks off, was picked in Wales' World Cup training squad. Training being the operative word, because that is all he did in the weeks leading up to France 2007, aside from a five-minute cameo in the 62-5 defeat to England. And that
first Test appearance did little to enhance his claims for a spot in the final squad; his most notable contribution was to watch Jason Robinson chip over his head to score a try.
"Since I'd come home, I'd just been training all the time so when I came on
late against England I was totally rusty and looked absolutely useless. Jason Robinson more or less made a fool of me. I was disappointed because I showed a lack of experience. But the next time I'm in that position that will never happen again."
It's that determination to improve that will stand James in good stead. He may be inexperienced but he has a willingness to learn that can only see him succeed. He does extra training sessions on his own, going to the gym and swimming, in a bid to keep moving forward. However, after spending so much time on the training field and so little time actually playing during the summer, on his return to the Blues, director of rugby Dai Young decided to send James back to Cardiff to play in the Premiership so he could find his feet again.
"We felt we had to make him take a couple of steps backwards to bring him forwards," explains Young. "I think he would have been better to stay with us over the summer and filter in quietly [to the Wales team] when he'd had more games and more time. I don't think the international scene helped him. I don't think he progressed there because he wasn't playing. It's very early in his development as a rugby player and he needs to be playing and learning. I felt during that period with Wales that he missed a block out where he could have done that.
"He's really learning on the run. We all know he's got gas, we all know he's got flair, but it's a case of learning the individual parts of his position, like his covering defence and where he needs to be on certain options. But it's astonishing how quickly Tom has got to grips with the game. He's got a really good attitude and is going to be around this set-up and the Wales set-up for a long time to come. Every time Tom gets the ball he's a threat."
When he finally got some game time under his belt again, James was quick to get back into the Blues team and show just how much of a threat he is, especially with the try-line in sight. On his first game back for the senior team he scored against Leinster. He followed that up with a brace apiece against Munster and Connacht before touching down against Sale. Six tries in four games is impressive in anyone's book "I like scoring tries, I've got that killer instinct" but, more than anything, James feels he is
developing in every game, especially in Europe.
"Playing against good sides in the EDF Energy Cup and the Heineken Cup has given me tremendous confidence," he says. "And against Munster in the Magners League. When they come over to Wales they don't always play their best sides, but they played one of their best sides out there. I've now played against Bristol, Harlequins and Stade Français in the Heineken Cup, and they say that's just under international level. The more I play, the more I improve.
"When I first started playing for the Blues I was nervous. I was put in at the deep end and played well in the first couple of games. People started talking about me, this young guy who had only been back in rugby a short while, and teams started sticking through high balls to me. I was nervous under a few caught a few but dropped some but as I got more confident, I wasn't dropping anything and people started to go the other way rather than attacking me for a change."
And there are plenty of other areas of his game that James believes are improving. "I think my reading of the game is twice as good, but it's not just that; it's my work-rate and my try-scoring. Before, I used to stay out on the wing, but now I'm shouting moves and coming in more I'm a totally different boy. I've been getting more comfortable with my kicking and have been working with Jenks [Neil Jenkins] on that. And any mistake I make with the Blues I go back over with Rob [Howley] and Dai, and take on board what they say, so I learn from every mistake I do. I know I've got to work on everything my speed, my passing, my communication with the full-back and the other winger. I'll never get too big for my boots I'll just keep playing and learning, off the coaches and the players.
"Last year there were only three wings at the club so there wasn't much competition, but now there are so many good wings here Alfie [Gareth Thomas], Jamie Roberts, Tal Selley, Rhys Williams and so on that everyone knows they have to play well or they will be straight out. If you play crap, then Dai has got boys who can come in to help the team go forward. Everyone wants the team to go forward."
One of those other contenders for a spot on the wing is also James's idol Gareth Thomas.
And that rivalry is bringing out the competitive spirit in the youngster. "I look up to him and want to be like him, and I want to beat him at everything speed, weights and so on. We have a bit of banter. He's got 100 caps and when I had one I used to walk in on a Monday and say, "I'm only 99 behind". "Now I've got two caps so I can say I'm 98 behind."
James won his second cap in the one-off Test against South Africa in November. He got slightly more of a run this time, caretaker coach Nigel Davies bringing him off the bench in the 69th minute to replace Morgan
Stoddart, but he still couldn't affect the result as Wales lost 34-12 to the world champions. Now the aim is to make it into Warren Gatland's squad for the Six Nations. The new Wales coach introduced himself to the Blues players when he came into the dressing room after their win over Bristol in the Heineken Cup and James is looking forward to finding out what the New Zealander is like as a coach. Incidentally, Gatland will be the third Wales coach he has worked with in his short international career.
"Against South Africa, it was a new team together Colin Charvis was the only player over 30. It's a young side in the making. That's a positive thing going into the Six Nations, and there's an extra buzz with the new
So now that James is putting more solid foundations in place, does he
eventually see himself equalling Thomas's century of caps? "No, I won't be anywhere near that; 100 caps only legends do that."
This feature is in the latest issue of Rugby World magazine,
on sale now. To save an incredible 25% off a subscription to Rugby World go