How Whitehaven stalwart James Newton overcame rejection and serious injury to earn testimonial

Rugby League has taken James Newton to both hell and Hull and back – but the West Cumbrian stalwart is still going strong.

AS HE approaches his testimonial, Whitehaven captain James Newton can look back at the excitement of being signed by a Super League club, then responding to his release to forge a fine career which has now topped 250 matches – with hopefully quite a few more still to come.

Ideally, the hooker would like to reach at least the 300 mark, and reckons that but for the pandemic, which forced a very early end to the 2020 campaign, then a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to a anterior cruciate ligament injury which necessitated a knee reconstruction, he would be closing in on the milestone as we chat about his long service with Whitehaven (this is his 11th season there), shorter spells at Hull FC and Workington – and his recognition by the Rugby Football League.

“It’s a three-month testimonial starting in August,” explains the 32-year-old, who is also using it to raise funds for St Mary’s Hospice on the Furness Peninsula. 

“That’s because my time at Whitehaven has been split by a year (2018) at Workington.

“I’ve got a committee who are helping me with the planning, and we have a number of events in the pipeline, including a golf day, boxing night, ladies’ evening and post-season match.”

That game is likely to be at Millom, 30 miles down the coast from Whitehaven where Newton began his career and with whom he represented Cumbria at Under 19 level.

“I’d been playing in the open-age first team at Millom for a couple of seasons and was called up for the tri-series county games against Lancashire and Yorkshire in 2010.

“Then I got a phone call from Richard Agar, who was the Hull coach at that time, saying he’d seen me playing for Cumbria and offering me a two-year development deal, which I accepted.

“It was a big thing for me leaving Cumbria and having to cope on my own, but the experience of being at a Super League club was great, and even though it didn’t progress from the initial contract, I don’t regret going.”

Newton played three games on loan at Workington in his second season at Hull (2012), but on returning permanently to Cumbria, signed for Whitehaven, partly because they offered him a role on their community programme.

These days, he’s among a string of players from the county who combine their rugby, be it professional or amateur, by working in the nuclear industry at Sellafield.

“It’s a big employer up here, which is good for the region, but not always great for the rugby clubs, certainly the professional ones.

“The shifts don’t always fit in with training and matches – I remember setting off to away games on a Sunday after working through the night – and some lads who could make it in the professional game prefer to stick in the amateurs because it’s hard for them to commit to the higher level.”

But over time, Newton has grown used to managing work, rest and play, and was happy to this season be given the captaincy at Whitehaven, with whom he won the League One title and so promotion in 2019 (after relegation from the Championship three years earlier).

“I’m proud to wear the armband. I had the year at Workington after we lost my dad Matty, because I needed a change of surroundings, and I don’t regret going there.

“But Whitehaven were his club, and are mine and my family’s too, so being skipper means a lot.”

Newton also appreciates the backing he got after his knee injury in 2022.

“It was a really tough time. We were playing at London Broncos (in he third match of the season), and I felt a pop and a lot of pain.

“At first we weren’t sure exactly what had happened, and I had some treatment, got back into training and made an attempted comeback in our Challenge Cup (fifth round) game at home to York around a month later.

“But early on when I made a tackle, I felt the same pain again, and then knew it was more than a niggle.

“After seeing a specialist, it was confirmed as an ACL, and I had an operation, then started on the road back.

“The club looked after me, both in terms of sorting the surgery and supporting me after it.

“But I’d turned 30, and people externally were telling me that was it for my rugby, although if anything, they did me a favour, because it drove me on in getting through my rehab work.”

Newton returned during the early stages of last season, making 24 appearances in all as Whitehaven narrowly staved off relegation.

He’d love to lead the club back to the play-offs (they made it in 2021), but accepts the first priority is to seal second-tier survival.

“Like a lot of clubs these days, finances are tight, and we haven’t got the biggest squad, but we’ve got a great coach in Jonty Gorley and some good players.

“On our day, we can be a match for most in the division, but we have to be more consistent if we are to get out of that cycle of fighting against the drop and consolidate our Championship place.

“The RFL’s restructure of the bottom two divisions means even the team finishing 12th this year is in danger (they will face a survival showdown with the winners of the League One play-offs), so it’s really important we find some form.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 497 (June 2024)

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