Thursday 18 December 2014

Vincent Hogan: Surviving the school of hard knocks

Published 06/10/2012 | 05:00

It feels a bit late for introductions yet, given Irish rugby's history of forgetting James Downey, who can really tell?

Because his story exists almost in the realm of rumour here. The Drumcondra kid whose heart was broken by three provinces before he packed a suitcase and, following six months of an eccentric Lombardy education, made his home in the English midlands. For maybe half his career, Downey seemed on an eternal scholarship to the school of hard knocks.

Then he picked up a ball in Northampton and remembered how to fly.

The thing is, he's 31 now. So Munster's new inside-centre isn't really new at all. He's an old discard of Leinster, Connacht and, yes, even the boys in red themselves. By his mid-20s, he'd become so conditioned to bad news, he began to wonder if it might be wiser to just leave it all behind and become a teacher.

But through all the gloom, he located an inner stubbornness. And Northampton recycled it as fuel. Today's RaboDirect Pro12 clash brings Downey back to the beginning then. For he was a Leinster player in 2003 when -- with Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan on World Cup duty in France -- coach Gary Ella decided he needed more cover in the centre. And that was when Gordon D'Arcy, hitherto a wing and full-back, got reinvented as a No 12.

To Downey, capped at U-19 level by Declan Kidney, D'Arcy's switch was bad news. "Last thing I needed really," he chuckles. Leinster now had a lengthening queue for centre. He needed first-team rugby, so he left.

sledgehammer

The move to Connacht was arranged with the help of Bernard Jackman and, for a season, he loved his new life in the west. Then a back operation kept him sidelined for three months and there were some minor complications with recovery. That said, he didn't see the sledgehammer coming.

Downey's memory remains vivid of being called upstairs at the Sportsgrounds to a meeting with Eric Elwood and Michael Bradley. But it all went a little blurry from the moment someone introduced the expression "injury-prone". Connacht, he was told, were cutting him loose.

Did he say anything in response? "Not in that meeting," he smiles. "They kept talking and I was sat there, staring at the wall, nothing coming in my ears. I couldn't believe it, just didn't see it coming.

"I'd been in the high-performance squad they had there and had been in an Irish squad the previous season. So to go from that to being released, it wasn't what I was expecting to hear. I was annoyed and I've wanted to prove them wrong since.

"I mean I had got the back sorted and was fine again. So to hear them refer to me as 'injury-prone', that really galled me. Especially when you look at my record. And I just thought, if that's what they wanted to use to move me on, fair enough.

"But, you know it fuelled a lot of things. I was a bit annoyed with myself that I didn't say anything at that meeting. But, at the time, I felt all four walls were crashing in on top of me. I don't know, I always wanted to put one up on Connacht after that and I remember being really determined playing against them afterwards with Northampton.

"Without being too harsh, maybe I wanted to stick two fingers up at them."

Circumstance now, essentially, put him in possession of a begging bowl. He contacted Kidney, then Munster coach, requesting a trial. Three months' probation followed and, every Monday, it seemed as if another centre would come through the Munster door, essentially looking for the same slot.

But they came and went in small multiples, Downey always hanging in. And, every now and then, he'd knock on Kidney's door, asking if there was "anything happening?" It seemed nothing ever was.

Eventually, his patience snapped. An offer came to join Calvisano in northern Italy and he accepted. When Downey told Munster of his decision, hey presto, they just happened to be ready to put something similar on the table. Maybe deep down, he wanted to stay. But fate was moving him on again.

"I did have a little panic attack and nearly tried to pull out of the Italy deal," he remembers. "I hadn't signed anything, so I rang my agent and told him I wasn't sure I wanted to go and, maybe, not to send through all the forms. But he'd already sent them.

"So I thought about it and said 'Look, if they're gone through, let's just see how it goes ... ' If Munster had come to me with an offer 24 hours earlier, it would have been a different story. But I suppose I was a bit annoyed that it took me to say I was leaving before they offered me anything.

"It was a stressful time and my first few weeks in Italy nearly convinced me I'd made the wrong decision. I didn't speak a word of Italian so I'd go to a training session and couldn't even understand left from right. But I had to adjust and it got easier. It helped that there were a lot of foreigners on the Calvisano staff."

The rugby in Italy was only marginally better than AIL standard and, as he recalls, straitjacketed by finicky referees. Nothing ever got beyond second phase, so there was no flow to games, no real professional fulfilment. That said, they gave him a house 20 minutes from Lake Garda and the lifestyle was idyllic.

Calvisano lost at the semi-final stage of the Italian Championship, yet Downey was assured they wanted him for another year. The assurance, though, never found expression in a new contract.

And, for maybe a month, he weighed up his options.

"It was a little bit frightening at the time," he says. "You're kind of thinking maybe the time has come to get a real job. I knew I didn't want to play rugby just for the sake of playing. That's not me. For personal respect, I wanted to be playing at a decent level."

An injury to David Quinlan at Northampton essentially changed the course of his life in the summer of 2007. The club had just been relegated from the English Premiership and was adjusting to life after the departure of iconic figures like Steve Thompson and Matt Dawson.

New coach Jim Mallinder saw something in the hitherto journeyman Irish centre he reckoned could be harnessed into a promotion drive. Northampton would win 30 games from 30 that season, winning the EDF Trophy as well as rejoining England's top flight. In their next campaign, they won the European Challenge Cup, Downey now a week in, week out revelation.

"We were like a family," he remembers. "We had a very young side and, a bit like Connacht here, maybe only two of the lads were actually from Northampton. So we all hung out together, socialised together. Sub-consciously, I think that makes you a little bit tighter on the pitch.

"I relaxed and started to enjoy the game a bit more. Up to then, I'd just been trying to get by."

In 2011, Northampton reached the Heineken Cup final, their opponents Leinster. And Downey suddenly became the loneliest Irishman alive.

"It was quite surreal actually," he remembers. "A lot of my friends started sending me messages. Stuff like 'Good luck Saturday, hope you do well, but want Leinster to win!' And I'm kind of 'What?' I couldn't believe some of the messages. And I started to get a bit ticked off with it.

WEIRD

"Then my schoolmates were over and you'd see them in Leinster jerseys. It was all a bit weird, knowing that if things had worked out differently, I could have been on the other side. But I was there with Northampton, trying to do a job for them."

It would prove the ultimate schizophrenic final. Northampton smashed Joe Schmidt's boys to lead 22-6 at half-time, three tries to zip. In the dressing-room, Downey -- unusually -- was one of those who spoke. He understood the importance of weathering the inevitable blue storm now coming their way. That was his message. "Just get the next score and close this."

It never happened. With Jonny Sexton in the vanguard, Leinster would run in 27 unanswered second-half points, claiming the big silver cup. Maybe 10 minutes from the end, an exhausted Downey was replaced.

"It's just one of those things you see unfolding in front of your eyes and you feel there's nothing you can do about it," he reflects now. "A bit of a blur really. Everybody had produced in that first 40 minutes, but I suppose we needed another 10.

"We'd have been happy to keep going without the half-time break whereas Leinster were probably praying for it. I don't know. It was frustrating, disappointing, every word you can come up with."

He remembers chatting to Sexton on the field after and appreciating the winning out-half's lack of hubris. Funny, just last week, that final came up in conversation between the two again.

Sexton was recalling how Leinster had simply done the maths on Northampton's playing schedule. For maybe their previous 12 games, the Premiership team essentially used the same starting XV. Most of their pack played 80 minutes every outing. They surely had to be edging towards exhaustion.

It's a topical issue today as England's clubs rail against what they interpret as the natural advantages Irish provinces enjoy in the Heineken Cup.

Downey admits that he has taken to texting old team-mates at Franklin's Gardens about the luxury of an itinerary that facilitates recovery. At Munster, life can be planned from relatively long distance. A player actually gets access to the luxury of rest.

"In England, they put you out every week and it's tough going," he says. "There are no breaks. You just get rolled out, week in, week out. Every week, you put out your strongest team. The only time you might get squad rotation was in an Anglo-Welsh game. So, when I was at Northampton, you could never really plan anything around time off. You might be hoping to get a week and they'd say 'We'll give you three days'.

"So I love the little breaks you get here because it's amazing what one week off will give you, even mentally. You just feel recharged. Now, from seven or eight weeks in advance, I know if I have a week off coming. I've been slagging the lads in England about it. And I'm getting texts back like 'I think I've a Monday off in March!'"

His sympathy then lies with the English, but only to a point.

"The flip side is that they play their strongest team consistently, so they have that continuity," explains Downey. "Here the Irish (international) lads might come back for a couple of games before the Heineken Cup, then off they're gone again. So the provinces get only a couple of games really to get used to combinations.

"It's interesting that so many people mention fatigue in the 2011 final. Because I don't think we were fatigued. Like, if you can't push yourself mentally through a Heineken Cup final, I don't know what's wrong."

The deal to sign for Munster was agreed last January. There were four people with him in the room that day and, by the time Downey clocked in for his first work day in June, three of them -- Tony McGahan, Shaun Payne and Jason Holland -- had left the province.

He is chuckling as he recalls it.

"I suppose it was on my mind okay," he says. "If you like, I'd been sold one thing and this was another thing. But I'm used to these little bumps in my career. And the way I saw it, it was a clean slate for everyone. Going in, I knew I wasn't the only one who was nervous."

He has found Rob Penney's positivity a revelation and this week has sensed electricity building for tonight's game in Dublin.

"The next three weeks are huge for us," he says. "People talk about Munster being in transition, but the quality is still there. Leinster will really test our resolve, but you need that intensity the week before the Heineken Cup."

And beyond that? His old friend Kidney recently added Downey to an extended Irish squad for a get-together at Carton House. In 2009, he was on an Ireland 'A' squad that won the Churchill Cup. Is that senior cap maybe still a viable dream?

"Look, I've got to establish myself with Munster first," he says flatly. "Every player would love to play for their country, but I kind of buried it a long time ago. I forgot about it. When I was in Italy, it was the furthest thing from my mind. In England even, because I suppose being over there doesn't help matters.

"Declan says to me we go back a long way, but I don't think he's going to pick me out of nostalgia. Look, if it comes, it'll be amazing. But it's not at the forefront of why I came home.

"If I win something with Munster and nothing happens internationally, I'm still happy!"

• To get the inside track on the RaboPro12, visit www.rabodirect.ie

Irish Independent

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