Downey steeled by school of hard knocks
JAMES DOWNEY could be labelled a late bloomer. He has spent nearly a decade touring Europe in search of the respect and profile he now enjoys as a front-line performer with Munster. It's a status he is hungry to build upon.
Downey's rugby adventure began with Clontarf in Dublin and advanced to Leinster, where he was cut from the ranks after just one season.
Two injury-ravaged campaigns with Connacht later, he was again surplus to requirements, but then Declan Kidney offered a sliver of hope in the guise of a trial with the then European champions Munster.
Downey nearly took Kidney's arm off. He spent three months "busting his hump" but played just three times. Without even the slightest hint of anything concrete from Munster, he faced his moment of truth.
What now? Was he to bid adieu to his rugby ambitions and embrace a career in some other discipline? Or did he believe in his ability enough to keep going, keep plugging away?
Italian side Calvisano offered him a lifeline and the fresh start he needed. Six months after pitching up in Italy, Downey had an Italian Super 10 medal in his pocket.
His time in Italy reignited his love of the game, and with his form and enthusiasm restored, the Dubliner began looking for a bigger challenge.
That's when, for once, life took a turn for the better. Jim Mallinder had just been appointed coach to Northampton following their relegation and the former Sale Sharks full-back saw something in Downey that he believed would help rejuvenate the Saints.
He took a punt on the then 25-year-old journeyman, but it paid off handsomely for both sides.
With Downey in the team, Northampton gained promotion to the Premiership, won the Amlin Challenge Cup and, of course, reached the final of the Heineken Cup in 2011 – when they were beaten by Leinster.
In his last season Downey couldn't escape the feeling that he needed another fresh start. "Towards the end it seemed like what we did was being telegraphed and I'd have three guys hitting me whenever I had the ball," he said.
When it emerged that Munster were interested, Downey didn't hesitate.
"I didn't look at any other clubs to be honest," explained Downey. "When a team of their stature hold their hand up, other options fade into the background."
That Downey signed for one coach (Tony McGahan) but has ended up playing for another (Rob Penney) is just one of the vagaries of his career that he is now accustomed to – "that's sport, you get on with it" – although it must have been disconcerting given the shift in dynamic and coaching philosophies.
"Rob (and Simon Mannix) have been hugely positive and the camp is a really happy one. And we know we're creating chances in matches. Against Llanelli, when we reviewed the tape, we saw the room we had."
It hasn't all been sweetness and light since the start of the season; against Ospreys and Leinster, Downey found himself on the bench.
In most teams it would be a choice between Keith Earls and Casey Laulala with Downey as their foil, but Penney has been experimenting by partnering the two tap-dancers at the former Clontarf player's expense.
Earls' groin injury spared the Munster coach of a tough selection decision in the opening two Heineken Cup games, but even allowing for his team selection this weekend – Earls and Downey, with Laulala on the bench – there's no guarantee he's given up the experiment. Downey is not letting such imponderables bother him.
"Obviously you want to be playing all the time. Rest is important as well, but depending on which two are playing, the third guy is pushing all the time. We're pushing each other to be better and that's the beauty of the situation."
To his credit, Downey didn't let the disappointment of being relegated to the bench for those two matches affect his confidence. One suspects he has gathered enough bruises over his career – mental and physical – to realise that the wheels will turn once he remains patient and trusts in his own ability.
It's for that reason he's not gnashing his teeth after being overlooked for the November series of international matches. His form this season has been good enough to merit being included in one of the Ireland training camps prior to the autumn series.
Downey is 31 and it is surprising that Kidney referenced this when offering a reason as to why he didn't make the cut.
Kidney's argument was undermined by the age of some others who were included, though Downey was not prepared to let it dishearten him.
"Of course it's disappointing," said Downey, "but they're the decisions he makes and that's why he's there. I've just got to continue to make it as hard a decision as I can for him. The priority for me us to nail down my spot at Munster and what happens after that happens."
This weekend Downey gets a chance to impress alongside Earls in midfield. It's not just the centres who need to lay down an emphatic marker, though. Collectively, Munster have been labouring under the much referenced new game plan.
If a team goes wide consistently in the same manner and in the same pattern, then it becomes not only predictable, but boring. But Downey is confident things will click.
"We haven't been exploiting the gaps we have been opening up. The aim is that we play 'heads-up rugby', that we play what's in front of us. We're not there yet, but we will be."
However, the wider public has yet to be convinced. A positive performance against Glasgow tonight would go some way to eliminating those lingering doubts. It would be timely too, with titanic Heineken Cup games against Saracens on the horizon.
"Glasgow have been going about their business quietly, which is traditionally when teams are dangerous. But this is a game we have to win. The word used most in camp this week has been 'momentum'. We don't have it, we need it and a win would help with that.
"Our game last weekend was hugely frustrating. But on reviewing the tape it was clear we were the only side playing actual rugby. Losing in those circumstances is awful.
"A win this weekend won't erase that, but it will help put us in a good place and help with what is a hugely important block of games for us."