Thursday 13 December 2018

All Blacks dreams, Scarlets rivalry and 'weak as piss' in the gym - Easygoing Lowe a breath of fresh air at Leinster

James Lowe’s honesty off the field is as refreshing as his skills on it. Photo: Sportsfile
James Lowe’s honesty off the field is as refreshing as his skills on it. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Before James Lowe enters the room a colleague is recalling a recent media gig where the Leinster wing was on duty along with a couple of team-mates.

It was one of those commercial yokes where the company gets a mention and in return the hacks take away some hole-filling quotes. Typically they are fruitless encounters. With Lowe, however, there was a bounty.

The best bit, we were told, was not just what he had to say but the ease and openness with which he said it. This was complemented by the looks of horror on the faces of his two team-mates who had been schooled in the art of saying absolutely nothing. As another of the Leinster men puts it: "With James, what you see is what you get."

And what you get is thoroughly refreshing. He is a very talented rugby player who talks the way he runs. So not too many straight lines, a few curves, and when he sidesteps it's not issues he's dodging. His mind races along, and he's more than happy to take you on the journey. Mostly he is just happy.

This is a reassuring state of affairs for a man who looks at the Champions Cup with some ambivalence. Leinster have three top-quality non-EU players - Scott Fardy and Jamison Gibson-Park are the others - where EPCR match-day regulations allow only two. So form is not the sole issue here. The fitness of others impacts on Lowe's chances of making the side when it comes to European affairs.

"Well, Fardy hadn't signed when I signed," he says, as if the Aussie had crept up through the tall grass. "I'd like to play every game that I could - don't get me wrong - but playing two weeks on, one week off, it actually gives me a good week to really nut things out, get the body right and then boom, where I've got two weeks to really give it my all. So yeah, it just sucks when it comes up to these big games and you've three foreigners who are eager to play and want to play and can't play. It's a bit of a shame in those terms but we're all still happy. It just sucks that that rule is in play."

When he comes out with the line that he's happy as long as the team are winning it's almost believable, for this is all an adventure for James Lowe. He was clear in his head that business dictated he leave New Zealand and join the dots between his rugby talent and a better salary. And he's living the dream.

Nelson is at the top of New Zealand's south island. If mention of that landmass brings to mind harsh winters and hardy bucks who wear shorts from its beginning to its end, then this touristy spot of 60,000 souls doesn't fit the image. It gets a lot of sunshine, and according to Lowe is a great place to grow up. Lots of outdoors stuff, lots of activity to keep you out of trouble. He was a young fella who needed tiring out.

"I was a little shit!" he says. "I was too active. People thought I had ADHD when I was growing up, full of too much energy. When I was at intermediates, Year 7, Year 8 (age 11-12) at school, my teacher, every time I would start bugging the class she'd let me go play outside for half an hour and then come back in."

As it turned out, some years later, the same teacher's husband gave Lowe a job at another school where he was principal, riding shotgun for a troubled child who needed all the help he could get. He is not short on emotional intelligence. At the time Lowe was caught between enrolling full-time in teacher training college and getting in his hours with the New Zealand Sevens programme, which involved two days a week down in Christchurch. He rowed back on the study but got involved with the mentoring.

"I couldn't even tell you what he did but he was coming back in to the school system and they literally needed a minder with him 24/7 so he didn't bash up other kids," he says. "So I looked after him. He was pretty much the same size as me as a 12-year-old. He was a huge kid. It was a bit sad. He was just from a dysfunctional family. It wasn't his fault. It was what he was born into.

"We got a pretty good connection going. We trusted each other. I looked after him for like a year and a half, kept on playing rugby, ended up a year out of school making the Tasman squad and from there, I was in the (New Zealand) Sevens mix. Two years at Tazzie, I started playing well and then played Super Rugby from there on. That was pretty much me after school."

He leaves out the bit about playing for New Zealand schools and the Maori, the latter coming on the back of his form with the Chiefs. The timing of his arrival at the Waikato franchise wasn't great in that his four seasons there started after their back-to-back Super Rugby titles. But he learned a heap; the fans loved him; and while no one had him nailed on as an All Black he was in the national mix. But there are a fair few lads in that position in New Zealand, where the selectors' dilemma is less about unearthing talent and more about beating them off with a stick. With the likes of Julian Savea that would require a two by four.

"He's a lot bigger than me," Lowe says. "I can catch, pass and kick and they didn't really need that on the wings. They had Julian to run over people. If I did stay, I reckon I would have got a couple of caps but I don't know. A couple of caps? It's cool, don't get me wrong, a childhood dream, but I don't know if it would have sat pretty staying there and smashing myself up for 10 months of the year.

"There's only so much you can hold on to. I'm realistic. I don't come from a very wealthy background or anything like that, so financially this will probably be the smartest business decision I'll ever make. I've only got eight years, maybe, left, and then who knows? I could be in a factory if I'm not smart."

So he said goodbye to his parents, brother and sister and came up to this end of the world with a clear head. As a teenager he had been struck down with rheumatoid arthritis, which took a bit of trial and error on the medication front to sort out, so Lowe is mindful of how lucky he is to he be playing professionally. So every minute counts.

What's surprising is that given how far he went in the NZ system, he didn't land up in Dublin with a fine grasp of systems and structure. And a set of gym scores to match his speed and power. For example, he describes his performance on that side of the house as: "Weak as piss - trust me!" If it's unlikely an Irish player would be lagging behind on that front, it's a certainty he wouldn't be so candid about it. Let's not knock it. So for man who clearly is very quick, has he struggled to get up to speed on the fine detail?

"Emm, how many players have there been this year? 53 . . . I'd underachieve. It was quite funny, like, man, when I first came here I really struggled. I was talking to Stu (Lancaster) about it. Everyone here went to a nice private school - that's pretty much it, and how they've been taught. It's very verbal, and they pick things up so quickly. For me, you see me out on the training ground and they'll be doing drills and I have to sit out and watch it a couple of times and then in my head I can do it.

"But if Stu just says to do something I struggle, I have to go ask him. I'm very visual. Actually at the Chiefs we had a big chessboard, as we called it. It was a big rugby table like this. We had players, 15 and 15, and we'd all sit around the table and, you in your position, as they called out the play you had to put your people in the right area, run the right plays and stuff like that. That was quite cool. I've started to pick things up. I know enough. I know what I need to know. Isa [Nacewa] has been very good, he's a smart cookie. He's helped me a lot."

It's not as if Lowe was educated in the Blackboard Jungle. Nelson College claims to be New Zealand's oldest state school set in "a picturesque setting of 22 hectares with excellent facilities for learning, sport, leisure and performing arts". Sounds OK. But we take his point. In any case, his personality is such he could fit most shapes.

"I'd be the first one to take the piss out of myself. It's not a bad thing that you went to a nice, private school by any means. If you don't accept someone for who they are and what you say… I guess once your morals and the things you believe in aren't bad, I don't know how exactly you say it.

"Yeah, if you're a good person you can fit in anywhere you like. As long as you're good to people, they'll be good to you, and the boys have been awesome. They've made me feel right at home."

All that remains is to keep delivering on the pitch. From the moment his signing was announced Leinster fans were all over YouTube checking out Lowe's highlights. Perhaps what they didn't realise was they were getting a fine kicker of the ball as well as a brilliant attacker. His defence? A work in progress. Like his medal haul. Aside from winning an ITM Cup title with Tasman in 2013 it's slim pickings for him. And he's eyeing up a happy ending to this Champions Cup campaign.

"Man, it's exciting - you can definitely tell there's a rivalry between Leinster and Scarlets. I've only been here six months but played them twice and there's definitely a grudge. It'll be good to have both teams with all their internationals actually playing and hitting it out. I guess it's awesome that the Aviva isn't classed as our home ground, too, so that helps. Yeah, hopefully a good crowd turns out. That quarter-final was amazing! I'd played at a stadium with 55k screaming against you so it was nice to have 50-odd screaming for you, so hopefully we'll get that again. It will definitely be a help."

And with that he's away off home to his missus who he says is enjoying life here as much as he is. Mid-afternoon and a day's work done. As he puts it himself: "This ain't the real world, is it?"

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