It’s 28 April 2007, and high-flying Gloucester is braced for a crucial showdown with big-spending rival Newcastle; victory would propel the rugby club to the summit of the English Premiership. The clamour for tickets means that the game has been switched from the Kingsholm Stadium to a larger venue, Bristol’s Ashton Gate football ground.
The two teams are littered with stars of the global game, among them, Gloucester’s gifted back-row forward, James Forrester. Not only is the Premiership title within his sights at club level, but a place in the starting line-up for England in the forthcoming World Cup in France is a distinct possibility. The 26-year-old is at the peak of his powers.
A minute into the game and, with no one around him, Forrester twists awkwardly in the turf and collapses to the floor. It looks innocuous, but the blood-curdling screams tell a different story. Life would never be the same again.
Fast forward seven years and James and I are in UFIT gym on Amoy Street, chewing the fat over everything from his beloved Chelsea FC to radical diet plans involving eating nothing but greens and “things with faces”. (Alas, gingerbread men are not allowed.) At the age of 33, he should be looking ahead to next year’s Rugby World Cup in England, but life has moved on apace since the days when he would light up stadiums with his speed, grace and nonchalant flashes of skill.
It’s not unusual for sporting stars to be cut down in their prime because of injury; it goes with the territory. However, the ability to rise from the depths of despair and reinvent yourself without a trace of bitterness requires a great deal of intestinal fortitude. With some trepidation, I ask James to rewind to his darkest hour.
“The pain was unimaginable. I was carted off to hospital and given morphine, but it didn’t even touch the sides. Nobody could understand why I was screaming so much, but I knew I’d done something really bad.
“It wasn’t until a week later that they realised the extent of the damage. I’d ruptured every single part of my knee. The patella tendon that connects the kneecap to the shinbone was gone, both menisci and my anterior cruciate ligament had ruptured and I’d also taken out a big lump of bone from the knee.
“The surgeon, Andy Williams, who’s treated lots of international sportsmen, said it was the worst sporting injury he’d seen. He could only compare it to someone who’d been in a car crash.”
Following an ultimately fruitless 16-month battle to regain full fitness, one of the most talented English players of his generation was forced to hang up his boots at the tender age of 27. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
James Forrester was born in Oxford to a rugby-mad family on 9 February 1981. His two grandfathers turned out for rugby behemoths Leicester and Bath, and his dad, Nick, played for Oxford for two decades. His uncle was also a promising scrum-half until his career was ended – surprise, surprise – by a knee injury at the age of 19.
James’s performances for junior side Bicester led to a rugby scholarship at the prestigious St Edward’s School in Oxford, where he would spend far more time in a nearby field playing football and rugby with his childhood pal, Jon Goodridge, than he did in the classroom.
He looked up to uncompromising English forwards like Dean Richards and Peter Winterbottom, but also the dashing centre Jeremy Guscott, whose ability to glide balletically across the turf made a big impression.
“Rugby was always part of my life, but I didn’t stand out until I was about 15. I was pretty small, but that made me appreciate space a bit more, rather than just running into people. It helped develop other parts of my game.”
James went on to play for various youth teams at Gloucester, but had no real plans to make rugby a full-time profession.
He won a place at Birmingham University to study sociology and history, but the lure of a gap year in Asia and Australia with his pals proved far too tempting. During those heady days of self-discovery, his weight plunged to just 64 kilograms, so, when he belatedly returned to playing with Gloucester, the 193-centimetre beanpole was forced to undergo an intensive weight-training programme in order to pile on the mass needed to compete on a rugby pitch.
Despite his lack of size and the fact that he occasionally missed training because of the lengthy commute from Birmingham, he still managed to break into the Gloucester first team as a teenager under French coach Philippe Saint-André. But, during the first semester of his second year at university, he was forced to choose between his studies and a career as a sportsman.
“We had a huge game against Wasps that was live on Sky Sports on a Friday night. I was picked to start, but I had Friday lectures so I had to head down the M5 motorway straight after. Unfortunately, there was a massive pile up and I was stuck in traffic for hours.
“I eventually got to the ground 25 minutes before kick off – usually you had to be there an hour and a half before. Philippe Saint-André went nuts. He said, ‘You’re starting, but next week I’m dropping you from the squad altogether, whatever happens, for ill discipline.’ I was thinking that I’d blown it and that I’d never play again, so it gave me the excuse I needed to quit university and focus on rugby. It was the right move; that summer I played for England against Barbarians at Twickenham.” Against a certain Jonah Lomu, no less.
James went on to make 134 appearances in all competitions for Gloucester and score 51 tries, including the winner in the 2006 European Challenge Cup final against London Irish at The Stoop. That was the year when he became firmly established as one of the most exciting back-row forwards in world rugby.
“In 2003, I was in the 37-man training squad for the World Cup which we won. It was an amazing experience, and I knew I was in line to establish myself soon after because all the back-row players like Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back and Richard Hill were in their 30s.
“By September 2006 I’d hit the best form of my career. I’d worked on all the areas of my game that I felt needed improving and I was 100-percent ready to establish myself as a regular international player.
“I’d got myself in really good shape. I was named Premiership player of the month in September, and after two months of consistently good performances I was told I was going to start for England against the All Blacks at number eight, but then I injured myself against Leinster, tackling Brian O’Driscoll.
“I missed the big international games that autumn and then the Six Nations. I came back gearing myself up for the World Cup in early 2007, but then obviously it all went wrong.”
Initially, surgeons and staff at the hospital kept him in the dark about the extent of his injury. However, when a 90-minute operation to repair his battered right knee eventually took several hours, it became obvious that a return to the rugby field was by no means a certainty.
“My wife was waiting for me in my hospital room when I went for surgery. I went in at 5pm and didn’t get back until midnight.
“Gloucester were really loyal and paid me throughout my 16-month rehab. I saw a famous knee specialist in the States called Bill Knowles who also treated Tiger Woods. He was the best in the business, but every time we pushed it my knee kept swelling up.
“Eventually I got back and played a couple of games for Gloucester, but I think deep down I knew it was over.
“If you’re a professional rugby player you need to be playing 80 minutes on a Saturday, plus weights on a Monday, speed work on a Tuesday, weights Wednesday and three or four rugby sessions a week to be at the top of your game. I would play on a Saturday but then the knee would swell up so much I couldn’t do anything until Thursday. I missed out on all the weights and speed work so I wasn’t cutting it; I couldn’t compete.
“I kept breaking down, so I saw a specialist physio in London, who had a look at my medical records and just said, ‘Mate, if you try and carry on you won’t be able to walk by the time you’re 40.’
“The next morning I saw the Gloucester physio Bob Stewart who I’d worked really closely with during my rehab. I told him I was retiring and I broke down. I couldn’t talk. He got emotional too and that’s when it really hit me.”
A testimonial dinner and an insurance pay out meant that there were no immediate financial pressures, but James still needed to find something to fill the gaping void left by his retirement. Living in the Gloucester area, where everyone knew of his travails, was also becoming claustrophobic. It was time for a fresh start.
“I was lucky at that time because my wife was pregnant so I could hardly sit around feeling sorry for myself. I had to be proactive and I had to be positive.
“Two of my closest friends live in Singapore, so we decided to come out for a two-week holiday. We loved it, saw lots of opportunities, and we decided on an extended six-month holiday to see if we liked the idea of living here.
“My friend got me a job as a broker, which was a great experience as I’d never sat at a desk before. I appreciated the opportunity and learned a lot, but it wasn’t really me; I’d earned a living since the age of 16 through sport and I missed it.
“I started coaching Wanderers who play in the Singapore Premiership, and also the Singapore national team in the Asian 5 Nations. I like improving players. We set programmes for weights, speed and so on, and try to be as professional as we can. I also formed a nutrition consultancy business.”
It was this interest in coaching and nutrition as well as a deep-seated entrepreneurial spirit that led to a coffee meeting in 2011 with Darren Blakeley, who, at the time, was running Urban Fitness boot camps.
“When I first started playing rugby I was planning ahead to a certain extent. I did a bit of work experience and the entrepreneurialism side came from my dad, who has never worked for anyone. He started his own business at 18; he pretended to be a tour guide, showing big groups of Japanese tourists around Oxford. He was just blagging it! He then set up a removal van company and now has a ski chalet business.
“I already had a pretty big network here through the coaching and the nutrition stuff, and Darren was running the boot camps, so we decided to team up because we realised that between us we offered something unique – proper coaching rather than personal training.
“We make sure our coaches have got proper backgrounds, we have in-house physios and we offer nutrition advice, because if you don’t eat correctly your improvements will be negligible.
“Boot camps, which is how it all started, are still an integral part of what we do. Some boot camps just smash people – it’s all about calorie counting; but we focus on mobility, speed and power. What we do is all-encompassing.”
James speaks with real passion about his new life and especially UFIT’s expansion plans for later in the year. But does he endure sleepless nights thinking about what could have been had his career not been so cruelly cut short?
“Of course I wish I’d had a few more years and played more games for England, but you can’t look back. When I look at staff now, I always look at the traits I respect in people; the ability to get over tough times is something I really admire.
“You can get overwhelmed with regret, but I just think, ‘I had a really good time, I wish I could have had longer, but so be it.’ Even just playing for Gloucester was a big deal; anyone living within a ten-mile radius of Gloucester’s ground would give their left arm to play for them. I had a pretty good run.”
The experts on James
– “James Forrester could do things on the rugby field that defied belief. The tragedy is we never saw the best of him.” Dean Ryan, Gloucester RFC coach
– “He was an artiste amongst artisans who never subscribed to the stereotypical norm.” Robert Kitson, sports writer at The Guardian
– “It’s cruel when anyone has to retire at a young age; to see the athletic Forrester chopped down prematurely is a crying shame. He had a priceless ability to light up a stadium with one nonchalant flash of skill or speed. He wasn’t really built like an international forward but he possessed the hands and footwork of an NBA legend. His knees were knobbly, his modest demeanour almost apologetic at times but he did things no England back-row forward has been capable of since Andy Ripley.” Robert Kitson, The Guardian.
James’s late grandfather, Major-General Michael Forrester, was awarded two DSOs (Distinguished Service Order) and two MCs (Military Cross) during the Second World War and played a prominent role in protecting Crete from the Nazis, and also saving the southern Italian town of Scafati from occupation. Maj-Gen Forrester and fellow soldiers of the Queen’s Royal Regiment, together with partisans he had trained, attacked German forces from behind and cleared mines under the Sarno bridge. “The Nazi commander had his finger on the detonator to blow up the bridge as my grandfather took it,” said James. “It saved a lot of civilian casualties and the whole town would have had to have been rebuilt.”