|James Webb by Alex Service |
The Saints announced a raft of signings in the pre-First World War era as part of their team-building plans. By the 1912-13 season, things were starting to look quite promising at Knowsley Road. The Committee were gradually beginning to assemble a side capable of competing for honours. There was a great deal of enthusiasm in the town, which was heightened in October 1912 when the club announced potentially their biggest signing to date, from Welsh Rugby Union. According to the St.Helens Newspaper: “It is officially stated that the St.Helens RFC have signed on the famous international forward James Webb, of Abertillery. Webb, who is the captain for Abertillery has been angled for unsuccessfully by a great many Northern Union teams and it is a great feather in the cap of the St.Helens Committee that they have managed to secure his signature. His record is the finest of any player ever signed by the Saints, even including that of Jum Turtill.”
Born in Coleford, Gloucestershire in 1878, Webb was described as 27 years of age, one inch short of six feet in height and played for Wales over 20 times. He was captain of both the Abertillery team and Monmouth county. Indeed he had played county rugby on at least 30 occasions since he was 19. His last international game was on 3rd February 1912 against Scotland.
The St.Helens Newspaper continued to describe his achievements: “Among the other things which stand to his credit the following may be mentioned: The other week he captained the Monmouth County side against the South Africans and the papers were unanimous in saying he was the best Welsh forward, his ‘hooking’ and his tackling being specially commented upon. It will be remembered that when the Rugby Union team left England on their South African tour, they decided to leave Webb behind, but after playing two matches, they called for Webb to come out at once and he arrived after they had played 11 matches. Webb played in the following ten and it is interesting to note that only one was lost, the South African press singling him out for specially favourable comment. Many people will wonder how the Saints have been so lucky to secure him for the moderate sum of £80 but there is no doubt that the influence of Browning and Richardson has induced him to come here. With a reputation like this, Webb should indeed be a useful man to the St.Helens team and the pack should be wonderfully strengthened by his inclusion.”
The Saints already had two highly-rated Welshmen playing for them in Tom Browning and Joe Richardson and they are mentioned as being influential in Webb signing for the professional code. The St.Helens Newspaper classes Webb as a hooker. Information from other sources suggests he was a lock forward. Perhaps a sign of things to come can be gleaned from the match report from his debut against Runcorn: “He did not shine by any means. True, he strove hard.”
James Webb struggled to get a First Team place at Knowsley Road. However, in the New Year there was a proposed international match at Plymouth, between England and Wales. Webb was initially selected in the squad. Yet shortly afterwards he was withdrawn to much scratching of heads, especially in St.Helens. Saints Secretary Harry Mercer was forced to publish a letter he received from the Northern Rugby Football Union in the St.Helens Newspaper about the player concerned on 25th February 1913: “Dear Sir, It has been found that Webb is an Englishman, a native of Gloucestershire, consequently his name has been struck off the Welsh team for this weekend. Yours faithfully, J.Platt.”
The St.Helens Newspaper was particularly sympathetic; “ One would think that if he was entitled to play in 20 international games for Wales under the Rugby Union, he would be eligible to take part in the Northern Union match and he was personally eagerly looking forward to the honour of representing his country in both codes.” Perhaps this would have been a kick-start to Webb’s career, but it was not to be. He remains a legend with the Abertillery club and one of the most capped Welshmen to turn to the rival code, similar to David Watkins in that respect. Yet things just didn’t work out for him. James returned to his home county of Gloucestershire. In 1939, he was living at The Beeches in Soudley. The former coal hewer died in Soudley in July 1955 at the age of 72.