An ode to James Bell: The impressive rise of St Helens’ fan favourite

Drew Darbyshire
James Bell St Helens Alamy

James Bell in action for St Helens

James Bell just loves playing rugby league. The St Helens forward would play every single day if he could.

That’s according to his coach Paul Wellens, who has paid a glowing tribute to his hard-working forward following his impressive performances in the early rounds of 2024.

Bell has made 53 appearances in the Red V since arriving at the club from Leigh ahead of the 2022 campaign, and has become a fan favourite at the Totally Wicked Stadium due to his no-nonsense defending and his ball-playing ability.

The Scotland international produced one of his best displays in a Saints shirt last Friday, making 156 metres from 20 carries, busting six tackles as well as making 16 tackles in defence as Wellens’ side picked up an 18-8 win against Leeds Rhinos at Headingley.

But it’s not always been sunshine and rainbows for Bell at St Helens, as coach Wellens reveals..

“Belly, by his own admission, had a frustrating first year at the club, he didn’t quite get as many opportunities as he would’ve liked because he is a guy who just loves playing rugby league,” Wellens told Love Rugby League.

“We talk about protecting players from playing many games.. I think he’d play everyday if you let him! He has got that real love and burning desire to play rugby, and that kind of attitude is infectious.

“He is a player who I know the rest of the playing group really have a lot of time and respect for. He was voted our Players’ Player of the Season last year so that’s a clear indication of what the playing group think of him.

“I think his game is continuing to develop with us, there were clear signs of that on the weekend, he was threatening with the ball in hand, he has a really unique skill set and he finds a way to trouble opposition defences. When Belly does that, on the back of a strong worth ethic defensively, he shows his quality. I think he really, really suits us.”

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James Bell: The New Zealand-born forward with proud Māori and Scottish heritage

James Bell Scotland Alamy
James Bell in action for Scotland at the delayed 2021 Rugby League World Cup

James Temuera Te Manawanui Bell was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and is of Māori and Scottish heritage.

The 29-year-old has won nine caps for Scotland on the international stage, qualifying to represent the Bravehearts through his grandfather, playing in the last two World Cups.

It is in England where he has really made a name for himself. After spending two seasons in the Championship with Toulouse, Bell made the move to Leigh in 2021, being a standout in a then struggling Centurions side who suffered relegation from Super League.

His impressive performances caught the eyes of Saints, who swooped to secure his services for 2022 and beyond.

Bell has gone on to become one of Saints‘ key packmen, with Wellens praising his attitude to adapt and evolve his game to suit their style of play, with Wellens and his coaching staff encouraging Bell’s skilful ball-playing ability.

“I think it’s something he naturally has in his game,” Wellens said of Bell’s ball-handling skills.

“When we were watching him when he was playing at Leigh, he was someone who could get his hands on the ball in the middle of the field and really challenge teams defensively, that was one of the reasons amongst others that we enquired about his availability and brought him to the club.

“What we’ve done is try to evolve the way we play a little bit in recent times, and that suits James as well, we allow him to get his hands on the ball as long as he does that with a discipline.

“Working in tandem with Morgan Knowles really helps him, so we’re kind of not asking too much from him, those two kind share that role a little bit and I think they complement each other really well.”

Bell, who made his NRL debut in 2017 with New Zealand Warriors, has earned big raps from his coach Wellens, who says the versatile forward has gone from strength to strength in his time with the club so far.

“I can only speak from his time at this club, but I do think he’s grown more confident,” Wellens added.

“I think he has got more self belief than when he came to the club, and that’s just my take on things and I also think his self belief and confidence is continuing to grow as well.

“His standing within the group is pretty sizeable now and that’s on the back of him being the way he is, valuing the tough side of the game but also using his skill when the opportunity presents itself.

“I, as his coach, am really happy with where’s he at and he’s having a really positive influence on the team at this moment in time.”

Bell and St Helens return to Headingley this Friday night to face the Rhinos for the second week running – this time in the sixth round of the Challenge Cup.

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