Well-heeled Lions hook a big one

2011-02-02 00:00

THE good news is that former Springbok flyhalf Butch James is returning to South African rugby; the bad news — for Sharks’ supporters, anyway — is that he has joined the Lions.

The 32-year-old James, currently playing English club rugby for Bath, has been signed by the Golden Lions Rugby Union on a two-year contract believed to be worth R3,5 million. He will join the Lions at the end of the European season in May and will only be available for the closing weeks of Super Rugby.

James, an influential member of the Springboks’ World Cup-winning team in France in 2007, flew back to Johannesburg yesterday, stepping off the private jet of ambitious new Lions stakeholder Ivor Ichikowitz at Lanseria Airport clad in the Lions’ No. 10 jersey.

He has had four seasons in England, but the Lions, with the deepest pockets in South African rugby, have bought him out of the final year of his contract with Bath.

An astute flyhalf who mixes aggressive defence with deft handling, James has been plagued by serious knee and shoulder injuries throughout his bruising career, but remains determined to return to the Springbok squad for the defence of their World Cup title in New Zealand this year.

James told reporters on his arrival that he is looking forward to his new carer with the Lions.

“The first time I thought the Lions weren’t a bad team was when I watched them in the Currie Cup last season and I think it was then that I made up my mind. All the new signings are just a bonus. For me they were the most exciting team in the whole competition and they beat the Sharks, who ended up winning the Currie Cup.”

The sight of James in a Lions jersey will have been particularly galling for Sharks supporters, who have travelled a long road with the former Maritzburg College flyhalf.

James indicated early last year that he wanted to return to Durban and the Sharks, in something of a flyhalf crisis, were desperate to gain his release from Bath.

“We wanted to get him back home and we tried,” Sharks commercial manager Rudolf Straeuli said yesterday.

“But Bath were asking far too much in transfer fees. We made offers, but they were turned down. You can’t stand still in this game and we have since moved on [to] make other signings and fill the flyhalf gap.”

Pat Lambie’s rapid rise from rookie to Springbok in a season was an unexpected bonus for the Sharks, but they also signed Jacques-Louis Potgieter from the Bulls and Meyer Bosman from the Cheetahs and they are now well covered at flyhalf.

James said that the Lions’ vision of the future, under former All Black coach John Mitchell and with Dick Muir as director of rugby, is “unbelievable.”

“I hope I can be a small part of it and one day will be able tell my children about my involvement with this great team,” said James.

The Lions already have flyhalves Andre Pretorius, young Springbok Elton Jantjies and Burton Francis in their squad and James said he faces a challenge making the team.

“It is not going to be easy, but I knew that before I signed up to come here,” he said, adding that he will be available to switch to centre.

“I’m happy to be shifted around as well as long as I’m out there on the field.”

James, who has returned to South Africa to be married this weekend, said that living in Johannesburg rather than Durban would be another challenge.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve grown up in Sharks country and played for the Sharks for many years, so they are a very dear team to me, but I think the Lions have really made a big effort to get me here and the least I can do is to repay them on the field,” he said.

The Witness reported shortly before Christmas that James had his sights set on returning to South Africa and that the Lions were hunting him down.

James said at the time that there were a couple of reasons for wanting to leave Bath and settle back in South Africa.

“The World Cup is one of them,” he said. “I’m not too sure how much longer these legs have in them and I want at least one season at home before retiring.”

Quite how much action James will see for the Lions from June this year remains to be seen. He hopes to play his way into the Springbok World Cup squad in the closing weeks of the Super 15, and if he succeeds, he will see only limited Currie Cup action before the end of the year.

The Golden Lions, bankrolled by billionaire IT entrepreneur Robert Gumede, are chasing two other former Sharks players, Racing Metro fullback/centre Frans Steyn and Ulster tighthead BJ Botha.

But after months of trying to hook dozens of high profile players, they have finally landed a big one.

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