Wednesday 20 March 2019

Alan Quinlan: Irish players can learn a lot from James Lowe - on and off the field

Analysis

James Lowe
James Lowe
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

There are times when I watch James Lowe that it seems like he is from a different planet, never mind a different hemisphere.

The long, flowing locks; socks crumpled around the ankles; and a boyish grin that is more compatible with a game of touch rugby in the park are all traits that mark him out as something very different.

His off-the-cuff tries and instinctive offloads are already filling highlights reels - and no doubt have shown many young Leinster players a different way of doing things - but the manner in which he carries himself off the field has been just as eye-catching.

He is willing to share things, to speak his mind and to broadcast his personality.

The stakes in professional rugby are higher than ever - greater financial rewards, and consequently losses, are on the line and each player's every move, on and off the pitch, is magnified, which has ramped up the pressure to unprecedented levels.

While being a professional sportsperson allows you to live the dream of thousands of others, it can come at a cost.

The effect of serious injuries, concerns over selection and form, or even just a bad losing run can really take their toll mentally.

Emotionally, the game can be quite draining - the week-long crescendo that leads in to the next must-win tussle is extremely taxing, especially when you are surrounded by a group of players who are also trying to juggle the various concerns that plague professional athletes.

Those of us who get a chance to play sport for a living are very fortunate but like everything in life, there are challenges involved that some people perhaps don't appreciate.

I was never the most relaxed guy in the build-up to a game. Besides, it's not exactly a trait you would feel comfortable displaying in a Paul O'Connell-led dressing-room.

I used to force myself to laugh and joke before games, giving John Hayes a ribbing helped to briefly send my pre-match thoughts on a detour.

"That opposition prop is going to give you a right hiding out there today, 'Bull'. Did you see the hit he put in last week?!"

You'd always wait until Paulie was out of earshot, mind you.

Irish rugby dressing-rooms may be full of robust athletes but there is an edginess to them, an inherent culture of fear which is seen as the best way to get up to the pitch of a game.

Focused rugby players don't tend to smile, your game-face is the only permitted expression.

Dressing-rooms are fascinating environments at the best of times. You see some of the toughest men you know at their most vulnerable - with headphones on in a desperate attempt to block everything out, saying a final prayer in solitude, or losing a battle with nerve-inflicted nausea.

Mood

Some days 'Bull' would be in the mood for a laugh before a game but there were also occasions when he'd have his head down and you'd know to just leave him be.

To see James Lowe have such confidence to just be himself - with ball in hand, around the Leinster camp, and in post-match interviews - has been refreshing, and when other players note how warmly he has been received in Ireland it should give them food for thought.

Not everyone has the personality or charm that James Lowe does, but seeing how he takes everything in his stride will definitely have a positive influence on the dressing-room.

I think everyone can learn from his approach; he can teach players how to take a little bit of pressure away, to trust their abilities and remember to actually enjoy the game that they play for a living.

Our natural disposition in Ireland is to play down our strengths for fear that someone will think we have gotten too big for our boots. But being yourself and showing you are comfortable in your own skin while in the public eye will largely be welcomed.

Professional sport, with the money involved and the esteem in which some players are held, can feel more and more disconnected from everyday life, so seeing a more human side to players on a regular basis would actually be a positive for the game.

Who knows, he could be fooling us with a swan-like facade, but the likelihood is that Lowe appreciates he has a great opportunity to set his family up for life by playing rugby in Europe, even if it means he had to abandon his dream of playing for the All Blacks.

It is also probably relevant that the media in New Zealand and Australia arguably have better access within the game - the season running a similar schedule to the NRL makes the TV market highly competitive - and it is more common for players to show that bit of personality.

Health issues in his formative years have also given Lowe plenty of perspective - his juvenile rheumatoid arthritis got so bad during his teens that at times he was bedridden and wondering would he ever be able to play sport, particularly rugby or basketball, again.

"At times I couldn't get out of bed and go to the bathroom myself. My sister has a video of me using a walking frame like old people have," Lowe said in an interview back in his homeland two-and-a-half years ago.

"When it was bad it would mainly attack my knees. Some days I couldn't pick up a knife and fork and the next day it would be in my feet and my hands would be fine.

"At the time I was scared. I think I had about eight months off sport and I lost 10kg in the first two weeks.

"Yes, life can be cruel but you can still achieve things you dream about as a kid. If anything, it should make you stronger."

I don't think I ever played with anyone like James Lowe during my career. He's a unique character who seems intent on living his life with a carpe diem attitude.

The Chiefs' loss has certainly been Leinster's gain - I don't think I've seen the 26-year-old have a bad match yet.

His energy levels are incredible. During the Munster game at the Aviva he was running in after every break in play, patting his forwards on the back and roaring encouragement.

I wanted someone to give him a slap, to be honest.

Watching Munster being beaten by Leinster is hard enough at the best of times, never mind when you have someone like Lowe rubbing salt in the wound after every turnover.

They are the kind of polarising guys who you love to play with the most though.

And you don't need to be a body language expert to see how popular he already is in this group of Leinster players, so many of whom know each other for years.

After touching down for his first try against Wasps last Friday, the one he somehow ran in from halfway, he was immediately congratulated by Leinster's replacements in the in-goal area, while Garry Ringrose, Josh van der Flier, Luke McGrath and Jordan Larmour raced each other to join the embrace.

Ominous

He is almost averaging one try per game in the blue of Leinster, an ominous statistic for everyone else when you consider the bit-part he played in their European success last season.

In his post-match interview, following his latest man of the match award, Lowe described what was on his mind when he found himself in a bit of space with half of the field left to navigate.

"Your head goes out the gate, you know, you don't know what to do. You always try and get the ball back in two hands, that's the big thing because then defences don't know what you're going to do either.

"I didn't know what I was going to do, so imagine what they are thinking. I just bloody kept on running, saw the try line, jumped over, and now we're here."

As long as he keeps doing what he's doing, there will be smiles on Leinster faces to match that of their affable Kiwi winger.

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