Sam James ought to have been centre-stage at the Premiership gala dinner last Wednesday night as winner of the Red Rum trophy for endurance.
Such an award would have given the game at large a chance to salute the Sale centre’s achievement in delivering the human equivalent of the equine version as performed by the Grand National’s favourite horse on three occasions at Aintree.
Its status as the supreme steeplechase remains untouched but the English rugby Premiership presents the same formidable test of survival with some obvious differences. It does so not once a year but on 22 weekends from the start of September to the end of May when the going is never less than hard to severe.
The game’s ever-rising physicality and speed makes the negotiating of those obstacles more hazardous with the passing of each season. More than 500 players went into the stalls last September and when the regular campaign finished earlier this month only five had been deemed fit to start every match, including Newcastle lock Calum Green and Worcester full-back Chris Pennell.
The rest all came out of the same stable, Sale Sharks – the uncapped Welsh tighthead Willgriff John, the South African back row forward Jono Ross and James. Of that quintet, one stayed at his post longer than every other player throughout the entire competition: James.
He played every minute of every match except for the home fixture against Bath last month. A bang in the mouth during the second half left him no option but to leave the field for the one and only time throughout the Premiership campaign, for the obligatory HIA (Head Injury Assessment).
Instead of being there for the full 80, as per usual, James played 75. In other words, he missed five minutes over nine months, an achievement made all the more phenomenal by the constant demand to justify his selection by performance and the infinitely more difficult matter of staying in one piece.
At 6ft 4in and almost 16 stone, James is built for the modern game, a 24-year-old Mancunian who served part of his apprenticeship on loan to Stockport, Chester and Macclesfield. His record of ever-presence extends beyond the Premiership to Europe and the Sharks’ eight-match run which took them to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup.
James played in all eight, going the distance in every one except for the matches against Perpignan and Bordeaux. He would still have been there at the end of those had Sale not decided to give him a rest during the final quarter.
His 31st start of the season included one appearance in the Premiership Cup, against Leicester at Welford Road last November. True to form, he was still in action when the referee blew for no-side.
The modern game has to be gauged in varying degrees of brutality. That 31 should be beyond anyone’s reach in the domestic game shows how the number has fallen since the first season of professionalism in 1996-7 when Martin Johnson pushed himself through 47 matches.
He played 34 for Leicester, six for England, one for an England XV and a further six for the Lions in South Africa. Johnson, renowned for his Old Testament philosophy of an eye for an eye, fought tooth and nail against all-comers but even he would concede that the physical ferocity has been racked up several notches since he collected the pot of gold on England’s behalf in Sydney 16 years ago.
In terms of club appearances for the season, James stands head and shoulders above the rest in Britain and Ireland. His fellow Shark, South African back rower Jono Ross, and Europe’s player of the year, Alex Goode, come closest on 29.
As the season draws towards its climax, only one player can match James. Should Toulouse go all the way to the Top 14 final, Sofiane Guitoune will finish on the same number, a scenario which puts the scale of James’ durability into a worthy context.
He kept going during a season when two second row forwards, famous for their supposed indestructibility, succumbed to human frailty. Alun-Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje were sidelined long enough to reduce their non-Test appearances to a modest number, ten and 16 respectively.
PETER JACKSON / Photo: Getty Images
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