AN ever present for Coventry this season, summer signing James Stokes is loving life at the Butts Park Arena.
The 24-year-old full-back’s attacking flair has been an instant hit with the fans, and his jinking run from what seemed an impossible position in his own 22 was the catalyst for the winning penalty in last week’s last-gasp 34-33 victory over Plymouth Albion.
Part of the club’s community team going into local schools, Stokes has certainly settled in well into his new surroundings, but admits that the decision to move to Cov was a tough one after a promotion-winning season with Cambridge which led to a place on the England Counties tour to Canada.
“It was a massive decision to leave Cambridge,” said Stokes, who credits the Volac Park club with rekindling his passion for the game after two seasons at Nottingham.
“I started playing at Nottingham High School when I was 14 and or 15 – I was quite late to the game, I was a footballer until I got introduced to rugby and I fell in love with it.
“I gave up football pretty quickly, I wasn’t really happy with the off-field side of it. My first club was Paviors, then I joined Southwell where some of my schoolmates were playing, and from there I went to Mansfield which was my first senior team. We managed to get promoted into National Three in my first season there which was really good.
“I was in Nottingham’s Academy and progressed through their system, playing quite a lot of British & Irish Cup games. They had quite a few internationals and it was good to learn off them.
“I’ve got some regrets that I didn’t progress as I wanted to there, but it gave me a stepping stone to Cambridge which was a bit of a drop down but made me fall back in love with rugby.
“I’d lost it a little bit, but I knew Rowland Winter from playing for Midlands Under-20s and he managed to get me into England Counties Under-20s as well.
“I was given a life by Cambridge, they got me a job, a lot of which was down to Rowland and the old boys and people behind the scenes you don’t really know about but who did so much for me, so it was a massive decision to leave.
“But I’m really glad I made the move. It was the new challenge that Coventry presented, the facilities, and I’d heard huge things about the supporters as well so that was also a massive draw.”
After working under Winter at Cambridge, where he was leading points scorer last season, Stokes knew what style of rugby to expect at Coventry.
“I’m a full-back, the more running we can do, the better, and that’s how Rowland likes to play – none of this ‘up your jumper’ kind of rugby.
“Some of what we are doing is not new to me, but Rowland has also brought in a lot of things we didn’t have at Cambridge. The amount of time you could commit wasn’t there, we were a sort of Tuesday and Thursday squad, and a lot of the analysis we do here off the field in terms of our well-being and things like that, we didn’t have at Cambridge.
“I left my full-time job, it was another thing I wasn’t too sure about, but it has allowed me to train full time and put in extra hours which hopefully is going to improve my game.
“I’m loving it here and hopefully it’s showing on the pitch. I believe that if you’re enjoying your rugby it kind of reflects in your performances. I’ll just keep working hard,
“The support here is unbelievable, week in and week out. I’ve not really experienced anything like it, it’s definitely an interesting experience and I love playing at home. You can definitely hear them on the pitch.”
Stokes says that touring with England Counties was “probably the best two weeks of my life.”
“I had an amazing experience out there. We did Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, it was a pretty special trip and I’m glad I took some pictures to remember it all.
“I just want to play to the best standard I can. I don’t set or chase targets, I don’t think there’s a lot you can do to influence someone’s decision to pick you up.
“All you can do is play rugby and play well, so if I’m doing those and just happen to go up through the leagues, that will be great.
“But I’m happy just to keep playing rugby and enjoying myself, that’s fine as well and all I really want to do.”
One date written large in his diary is November 19.
“We play Cambridge here on that day which is also my birthday, so it’s a massive day for me.
“I really can’t lose that one!”