A deep rugby heritage runs through the Whitcombe family so it was no surprise when Keighley-born James took up an oval ball and ran, the only question being: which code?
James’s Welsh-born great grandfather, Frank, had been a Rugby League legend during the 1930s and 40s, playing well over 300 games for Bradford Northern and representing Wales and Great Britain.
Frank enjoyed a decent stint in Rugby Union, too, playing for London Welsh and the Army prior to World War II, so it is easy to see why, a generation later, James’s father, Martin, would become a more than useful Union prop forward for Leicester, Bedford and Sale before enjoying a brief stint at Leeds Tykes at the outset of the professional era.
Martin played 68 times for Leicester during the 80s – a clincher for young James.
“I played Union until I was about ten and then had a stint in League for three or four years playing down at Keighley Albion,” 18-year-old James explains. “My great grandfather had a good history in League so I’ve got that background, but I attended Woodhouse Grove School after that, which was predominantly Union, so that’s the way I went.
“I’ve always played both codes and still follow League, but I’ve been lucky to have pushed on with Leicester and I got picked up by them quite early. Yorkshire Carnegie came in for me but my dad had played at Leicester and that opened a few doors.
“Nick Youngs, the former Leicester and England scrum-half, is good mates with my dad and he, along with chief executive Simon Cohen, gave me an opportunity to get down to Leicester. I got on to their development pathway at 13 and have just worked my way slowly into the academy to where I’m now, pressing to get into the A-League.”
A talented tighthead who has represented England at U16s, U18s and, most recently, U19s level in their 31-15 win over Wales in Bridgend last Sunday, James has some pretty good role models.
“I look no further than Dan Cole,” says James, emphatically. “He’s been one of the best scrummagers in world rugby for many years so what more could you ask?
“I was actually a loosehead to start with and can still play both, which is useful, but I’m edging more towards the No.3 jersey and Coley’s just brilliant there.
“I also look up to Joe Heyes, who’s a little older than me but has come through the Tigers academy and has been playing a lot of first team rugby this year.
“They’re both good role models and I also spend a lot of time with Boris Stankovich, our scrum coach, who’s a great mentor and works with all our teams.”
Having featured for England U19s, James is now keen to take the next step.
He added: “It was great to get that call-up and hopefully I can put my hand up for the U20s now, whether it’s for this year’s Junior World Cup or next.”
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