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Downey still feels the pull of the round ball code when played to perfection

Munster centre James Downey grew up on Griffith Avenue, right around the corner from the institution that was and is St Vincent's GAA club, the home to legends of the game like Kevin Heffernan, Jimmy Keaveney and Brian Mullins.

It was as an eight-year-old that he first took a stroll up to the club, where he stayed and played all the way up to minor level before rugby took him away from the game. "You don't think of it as an eight-year-old," said Downey.

"But the history of Vincent's is huge from the late '70s. It was my local club, my parish club. I just happened to live around the corner from one of the best ones. When you were at the club, Jimmy Keaveney was always there. His son Timmy was on my team coming up. The big names would be around the club the whole time, men like Brian Mullins.

"They weren't just names you heard about. They were there. They were coaching, giving back I suppose."

The connection to the club was moulded over 10 years of training and playing, building friendships that have lasted right through the years.

"I played with Mossy Quinn – he was in my year – and Kevin Golden. I am a good mate of his. That would be it then. Martin Kennedy was another Gaelic footballer masquerading as a rugby player at Belvedere. He turned up for that television show The Underdogs, was made captain, but was knocked out of the game by concussion."

Anyway, getting back to Downey's own underage career, the last big day came in the 1999 county minor semi-final.

"Yeah, we lost out to Kilmacud Crokes. I marked Darren Magee that day. It went alright. It was after that game that I was offered a Dublin trial," he said. "But, they were already in the All-Ireland semi-finals. I had my sixth year holiday booked and I went on that instead. It was around then I had to make a decision and I chose rugby."

POWERFUL

Downey does not disagree with the suggestion that Magee was one of those naturally powerful athletes that might have prospered at rugby.

"It would be fair enough statement. But he had the engine on him to run all day which, maybe, I didn't have as much," conceded Downey.

"When I was coaching I could see that some of the Gaelic lads would be brilliant at rugby with their evasion skills and hand-eye coordination. It is all about the ball then, isn't it?

"I actually coached Hugh Gill when I was a rugby development officer at Leinster and he was playing rugby for Mount Temple. I tried to get Hugh to move over to rugby. He didn't go for it."

The impact of St Vincent's is still there with Downey. He even used the club as a place of comfort when he would return from Northampton Saints to renew old friendships. "I wouldn't go up to Vincent's as much now. But, when I was in England, I tried to get home when I could for matches".

LOVED

Do you ever miss the game? "Yeah, well, the Dublin-Kerry game last year. When you see it played like that, it would make you wish you could do it

"I would have loved to run out at Croke Park at some stage. When you are playing GAA, that's what you want to do is wear the blue of Dublin. It is always there.

"I love the way they are going now and love watching them play. I wouldn't be able for it now. It is a different game now to what it was when I was younger. Back then, I looked up to John O'Leary, Ciarán Duff, Barney Rock, even the '95 team with Jason Sherlock when he came on the scene, Charlie Redmond, Declan D'Arcy. There are so many."

The renaissance of St Vincent's has not gone unnoticed by the former Clontarf and Leinster centre. The pull is still there.

"It has been quiet there for a few years. Now, they are back."

And the All-Ireland club final? Will he be there? "If I can, I will."


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