Friday 24 February 2017

Saints' inside track supplies Downey with breakthrough

Late bloomer James Downey is making an impact at Northampton, writes Brendan Fanning

If you believe that nothing informs us better about rugby players than watching them play, then your grasp of the obvious is as good as ours. And yet in every club in every city where the game is played, there are any number of players who could change your opinions of them if only they got a run of games.

James Downey is a case in point. He will be 29 in March and his career is only warming up. It was slow to start, equally slow to warm up, and then cut out a couple of times with the prospect of never starting up again. Two things changed for him: one, he got a lucky break; and two, he got enough time to show that he has value.

The break came three years ago when he was rotting away under a hot sun in Calvisano, and a gap in Northampton's roster was tailor-made for him. Why was he in Calvisano? You might as easily ask why was he not in London Irish, or Leinster, or Connacht or Munster?

Downey's flirtation with the professional game started more than seven years ago when London Irish dialled his number. He was playing AIB League rugby with Clontarf at the time and doing damage in a direct way. It got to the stage where they were talking money and accommodation but then the man he was to replace changed his mind. Having told his folks that he would be moving out, he then had to advise them that they shouldn't let his room just yet.

He hadn't quite turned 22 at the time and had been talking to Matt Williams about something more concrete than a training arrangement with Leinster. Then Williams left. It was back to Castle Avenue where he had gone in the gate as a 10-year-old.

"I wasn't thinking too hard about it at the time and it wasn't my be all and end all," he says. "Like, I hadn't played (Ireland) schools or anything, and I'd gone to uni' and got a degree. I figured that if I kept playing well that something might come along. I looked at Birch (Bernard Jackman) who'd gone off to England and came back and played AIL and done well. The AIL was still getting good crowds at the time and if you did well with a good team you were in the shop window."

That's where Connacht saw him, and for a while that went well enough. In year two, however, he suffered two lengthy injury setbacks at the end of which he was shown the door. It maddened him that he was perceived as someone who routinely picked up calf strains or pulled hamstrings.

"It does seem like a completely different world now. In my first year in Connacht I was part of the High Performance Unit -- I don't know if it even still exists -- and the next year after having two injuries I was told: 'We don't want you'. That was kind of hard to take. But it was their choice and I suppose it gave me a kick in the hole -- it spurred me on to prove them wrong."

Next stop, some more club rugby, and then down to Munster on trial. He wasn't sure where he stood there. There was a stream of centres revolving in the mix but he appeared to be hanging on longest. In the absence of a concrete offer, however, he accepted a deal from Italy. It was for a year and at least he was sure to play. As is the way with these things, as soon as he thanked Munster for their time, they suggested a more permanent arrangement.

"I said that if they had told me two weeks ago it might have been a different story, but I was getting fed up at being dragged along. I was happy to do it (the trial) and in fairness to Declan (Kidney) he took me on trial when he didn't have to do anything. I thought I was out of my head though when I saw what I'd done, that I should have stayed in Munster. But I stuck with it."

It wasn't all bad. He enjoyed nice living accommodation; the pasta was quality and the wine too. And Lake Garda was only a spin up the road. But the nine to five stuff was dispiriting.

"Some of the rugby there is good but the rest of it is so negative I just got extremely frustrated," he says. "I used to give out about AIL refs but then I was: 'Oh my God they're a Godsend!' It was so negative you wouldn't get past one phase. They'd kill it and ruin it and some of the Italian players were shocking -- they wouldn't make 'Tarf thirds. I was going: 'What am I doing here?'"

Calvisano used to be able to hold out for 40/50 minutes in the European games. And in the play-off against a Magners side for a place in Europe they were done with a try so deep in injury time as to be futuristic. Afterwards Dragons coach Paul Turner had an encouraging word about his future. There was hope.

Before any door could open in Newport, however, David Quinlan conveniently wrapped up his career in Northampton because of injury. And he kindly put in a word for Downey as an ideal candidate if the Saints wanted to replace like with like. They did. And a whole new career unfolded for him.

James Downey is now half-way through his third season in Franklin's Gardens and already in talks about staying. Why would either party want to break what has been a sweet relationship?

The club are two points off the top of the Guinness Premiership with a game in hand over leaders Leicester. Downey arrived when they had been relegated and has been a positive force in getting them up and now putting them in such a strong position. In their last league game, against London Irish, they won in the final couple of minutes -- the third time this season they had closed late on a deal that previously would have slipped through their fingers.

Northampton has always been a one-team town and has a proud if undistinguished history. Consistently they have produced good teams, but hardly ever trophy-winning ones. In fact, their Heineken Cup triumph over Munster in 2000 was their first senior title.

And aside from rugby there's not much else to distract the good folk in that unappealing spot in the midlands. Not much at all. Many years ago a few of us had too much time on our hands there before a Connacht game -- turned out it was a trip well worth making -- and stumbled across a bowling alley which filled the gap. "You probably found the best thing in the town," we were assured later by one of the locals.

Coincidentally, Downey is billeted not far from that same bowling alley with Roger Wilson, making up one half of the Irish contingent in the club. Along with Barry Everitt and Neil Best it has become the strongest Irish outpost in the English Premiership. And he is not too far either from Franklin's Gardens. Surely that is the best thing in town.

Even in the old days the Gardens was one of the better grounds on the English circuit but now it is one of the best in Europe. At 13,600 its capacity is modest -- they plan another development to take it up to 17,000 -- but what a venue: modern and aesthetic and on match days the place throbs. And it is always full. That's how it will be this afternoon for the visit of an understrength Perpignan, whose interest in the fixture is now in question. The Saints will hardly trip up today.

"Yeah, it's a great ground," Downey says. "The atmosphere for the Munster game that day was the best I've played in. It doesn't hold as many as other stadiums but our fans are pretty mad. Even in Division One we were getting 11-12,000 which is crazy. So maybe now it's time for payback for them because they're superb. A lot of teams' support would have dropped off if they'd gone down into Division One but this is a rugby town and they want their rugby and in fairness to them they get behind you all the time."

He will appreciate the atmosphere in Thomond Park on Friday night. And even allowing for partisan divisions, the home fans will recognise his honesty. It took him as far as a place in the Churchill Cup winning squad last summer, but the way Ireland played didn't call for a big, gain-line player at inside centre. He was lost.

"I don't claim to be something I'm not," he says. "I don't claim I can do this or that or have the perfect all-round game, because I don't. I know the way the lads want me to play and I can get go-forward ball. And sometimes if you play simple it works. Well for us I guess."

And at the weekend, will it work in Limerick against Munster? "When the draw was made I just wanted an Irish team and I would have been just as happy with Leinster," he says. "There's a bit of out of sight out of mind over here. And against Munster I felt we had nothing to lose: they're the most consistent team in Europe for the past couple of years. It was good. It'd be superb if we could get through now. We're looking to get as high as we can in Europe and to do it would be absolutely superb."

And all because he got a chance. The chance to show what he can do. To change people's minds.

Northampton v Perpignan,

Sky Sports 3, 3.0

Sunday Independent

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