Tuesday 24 April 2018

Luke McGrath's injury raises the spectre of losing James Lowe for pivotal Saracens game

James Lowe goes over to score one of his two tries despite the tackle of Corey Baldwin of Scarlets. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
James Lowe goes over to score one of his two tries despite the tackle of Corey Baldwin of Scarlets. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Irish rugby can be a serious place. Even after the biggest wins, the talk soon turns to 'work-ons', 'learnings' and the Monday review. A player can score a hat-trick in a Test match and have his performance described by his coach as a 'mixed bag'.

That's the way of the world.

If McGrath is out for a period, that means either Fardy and Lowe will likely be sidelined too, because Gibson-Park is the next in line for the No 9 jersey. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
If McGrath is out for a period, that means either Fardy and Lowe will likely be sidelined too, because Gibson-Park is the next in line for the No 9 jersey. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

At least it was until James Lowe bounded into our lives, bristling with positivity and enthusiasm and playing the game in a manner that suggests pure enjoyment is his primary goal.

"Nah, you have to win. It's not entertaining if you don't win," the New Zealander said after collecting a Man of the Match award for his two-try, one assist display on Saturday.

"It's a team game, you're based on performance and winning - Mondays are a lot grimmer at Leinster HQ (when we lose).

"Even when we win it's a bit grim, you know? The boys need to smile more. Maybe that's just me, I'd be a rubbish coach."

Maybe he would, but Lowe has been a breath of fresh air since he arrived to these shores in November and rarely has an overseas signing made such an impact in such a short time.

Endeared

He plays with a smile on his face and, while he is prone to the odd defensive lapse, his attacking approach and refusal to die with the ball has already endeared him to the home fans in Ballsbridge.

Along with Jordan Larmour, it would be fair to argue that the X factor he provides was a driving factor behind more than 14,000 fans making their way to the RDS to see two shadow sides shorn of most of their internationals on a chilly February afternoon.

The attraction to the Leinster coaching staff is also obvious.

"He is such a dangerous attacker," Leo Cullen said.

"He is a constant threat on the ball. I was really pleased for him to get in for another couple of tries.

"He has a habit of scoring tries. That was the main attraction of him coming in. He did well to set up Luke's (McGrath) try as well, so all our points stem from him."

However, Leinster could face a future whereby they go into the biggest games of their season without the 25-year-old, who has scored five tries in six games since joining from the Waikato Chiefs.

Before he arrived, few fans were aware of the restrictions around overseas players, but now it directly impacts on their season.

The knee injury suffered by McGrath has brought it into sharp focus. It was too soon for a full diagnosis on Saturday, but Cullen's concerned tone suggests the scrum-half faces a few weeks out.

According to competition laws, Leinster can only pick two of their three 'overseas' players in a match-day 23 in the Champions Cup and Guinness PRO14. That means one of Scott Fardy, Jamison Gibson-Park and Lowe misses out every week.

If McGrath is out for a period, that means either Fardy and Lowe will likely be sidelined too, because Gibson-Park is the next in line for the No 9 jersey.

Fardy and Lowe were Leinster's best players on Saturday and for all of Lowe's fireworks, the Wallaby second-row has quickly become the heartbeat of the pack and, when fit, he's one of the first names on Cullen's team-sheet.

That means that Lowe could face being the odd man out if McGrath isn't fit.

Six weeks out from the Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens, it's a prospect fans won't want to contemplate.

"Would we prefer if they were all qualified? Oh course we would!" Cullen said.

"But they are not and we just have to get on with it. We have talked about it in so much detail... it is just a fact of life."

Lowe, meanwhile, is just making the best of it.

"It sucks, eh? They need to change the rule," he said.

"It is a shame, it's only New Zealanders and Aussies! C'mon, something's wrong there, eh? You can't just single us out. I don't like it.

"It's a good problem to have, because you've got three foreigners that want to play week-in, week-out, so it depends on the balance of the team, the dynamic of the team and who comes back from internationals.

"I remember the Edinburgh week, all three of us were named to start, but we had to wait to see which internationals came back from camp to see who wasn't playing.

"It's a good problem to have, it's just a shame that we can't play together - I like playing with Jamo!"

It helps that Leinster have plenty of depth to call on, however, and Lowe is blown away by the calibre and volume of local players coming through the ranks.

"This is something I've never experienced and I don't think there will ever be anything like what Leinster have at the moment," he said.

"The amount of depth that this club has, the way they have been able to keep so many internationals is ridiculous. The amount of young fellas who from a young age all they want to do is play for Leinster... I've never been anywhere in the world (like it).

"I tell some of the boys back home. At the Chiefs we had one person in the squad who went to school in Hamilton and that's in the Super Rugby franchise.

"Here you have five people who didn't go to school in Dublin and they play for Leinster - it's absolutely crazy. Nowhere in the world do they have what Leinster has right now."

Ciaran Frawley, Leinster's fifth choice out-half, became the 51st player used by the province on Saturday when he replaced Rory O'Loughlin, who suffered a suspected concussion.

And the Skerries youngster barely missed a beat.

"We've got young fellas coming in, a lot of the Academy has been training with us for the last couple of weeks, man, it doesn't matter who comes down from the international set-up they've got to catch back up to us," Lowe said.

"We're there just doing work and making sure we can be the best we can. If we get internationals back it's awesome, if not we've got boys who can step up week-in, week-out through this Six Nations period.

"Those young guys, I mean (Ciaran) Frawley played 60-odd minutes and played very well. He was a little out of position in terms of what he's used to, but he did everything he needed to do.

"He made important tackles, passed when he needed to pass and credit to him."

If they learn to enjoy themselves like the bundle of energy out on the wing they'll be all the better for it.

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