Sitting down with James Clare in a coffee shop in Castleford, one thing you pick up almost immediately is the warmth and passion he talks both generally and about rugby league. After all, this is a man who has recently returned to his boyhood club after three years away from Wheldon Road and, in his own words, is “living the dream.”
However, he may well not have ended up back at the club after other opportunities presented themselves last year following his departure from Leigh. Speaking of his friendship with York City Knights coach James Ford, Clare explained that he was very keen to sign with the third tier club with a view to beginning a career in teaching while playing rugby league part time. However, when his hometown club came knocking, he couldn’t turn it down. “You might as well take rugby while you can” he added, further saying that, despite speaking to other Super League clubs, “there would only have been Cas that would have persuaded my mind.”
After playing in the second and third tiers following on leaving Castleford in 2015, last season saw Clare sign for Leigh but, in the final pre season match against Dewsbury, he suffered an ACL injury. Despite the injury keeping him on the sidelines for the majority of the season, he ended the campaign in great form. After ending with a record of a try a game from the matches he played in, the 26 year old added that “it was great to get back playing – and scoring a try in my first game back got me off the nudey run!”
Met with fierce competition on the wings on his return to the club in the shape of Gregs Minikin and Eden as well as Papua New Guinea’s monsterous Garry Lo, Clare was one of the players missing out on the first match of the season away to St Helens but spoke of the confidence the team had going into the game. Agreeing that it was one of the toughest challenges any team could face as their opening match, he argued that, bearing in mind every team will lose at some point in the season, “why not the first game? Take the shock to the system and regroup.” That is exactly what the Tigers did and, following media reports and journalists suggesting that Cas wouldn’t be the force they were last year, they delivered in the second match by earning a hard fought late win over Widnes. Speaking of the week in between, Clare explained “you could feel the tension after the Saints game” but, following the home fans’ chants of ‘one season wonder’, added that the players used that as a source of motivation.
Following on from his injury hit campaign last year, Clare has already featured this season for the Tigers’ dual registration partners Halifax and he believes that is a positive thing for his future. “It’s ideal for me as, coming back off last season and being out for months, maybe I need six or seven games to get back to where I want to be,” he added. One thing clear from the time I spent with Clare was his admiration for the 2017 Coach of the Year Daryl Powell and, while he openly admitted that the offer from Castleford came out of nowhere and surprised him, he was delighted at the chance to play under the former Featherstone coach. “He is one of those coaches with a great reputation for nurturing players to be the best they can be,” adding that the likes of Danny Orr, Ryan Sheridan and conditioner Ben Cooper are vital to how effective the club’s coaching department is. Nevertheless, Powell gets the headlines and is credited by Clare for getting the likes of Paul McShane, Mike McMeeken and Greg Eden into the conversation for England international honours while also mentioning Denny Solomona as a Daryl Powell success story.
Such is the regard he is held in, Powell was very strongly linked with both the England head coach position as well as a backroom role but has turned it down. Clare shared my personal belief that Powell would be great for the national team but also suggested that it quite possibly work out due to the coach’s desire to be the best he can possibly be. “He needs to do it full time, he wouldn’t want to do it half heartedly,” he explained and suggested that the man who is hugely interested in international rugby wouldn’t feel comfortable splitting the two roles. “He lives and breathes for rugby and he would feel like he was letting Cas down and England down” and Castleford fans will be delighted to know that their lauded coach is still in role at Wheldon Road with Clare adding that “everyone is buying into the Daryl Powell way.” Furthermore, he suggested that silverware may not be far away with the strength of depth in the squad leaving the club in a position to compete on all fronts this season.
Following his initial departure from the club in 2015, many may have thought that Clare may drop off the face of Super League but the man himself didn’t believe that. When asked if he felt he would get a chance at a top club, he answered “I always believed I would.” His initial reason for departing was in search of regular game time after featuring as an understudy for both Solomona and Justin Carney which, while giving him a chance, didn’t really provide an opportunity to get a run of matches. Then his opportunity at Bradford arose and, following his campaign there, Clare ended with a good record of 21 tries in 30 appearances for the club. Speaking of his time there, he added that “it was the perfect opportunity for me and I was in a really good place” and, such was his form, his return to Super League came in the shape of signing for Leigh in the off season prior to the 2017 campaign. He was keen to play but, following the aforementioned pre season injury, he only featured towards the very end of the season but, despite his strong try scoring record when he did play for the Centurions, he couldn’t save the club from dropping out of Super League. However, he is now back at the Tigers and believes that he will be able to feature heavily for the club, such is his self belief and believes that, under Powell, he will flourish; “he is the man to get the best out of me.”
Due to the injury suffered by Greg Eden in Cas’ 28-18 victory over Hull FC at the weekend, Clare has been called into the 19 man squad to face FC’s cross city rivals Hull KR on Thursday night and – weather dependent – will be hoping to start in one of the wing berths for the club and, if he did, it would be a brave call to bet against the local lad crossing the line – he has, of course, got a superb try scoring record when he plays. However, even if he doesn’t, there will be no doubting that James Clare will have given his all for the club he loves and, as rugby league fans, that is all any of us can ask of the players donning the shirt.