Saturday 21 September 2019

Neil Francis: 'James Lowe is so good that I had to create a new word just to describe his brilliance'


James Lowe of Leinster is tackled by Cheslin Kolbe of Toulouse during the Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final match between Leinster and Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
James Lowe of Leinster is tackled by Cheslin Kolbe of Toulouse during the Heineken Champions Cup Semi-Final match between Leinster and Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

There was a brilliant moment in the middle of the Leinster versus Toulouse Heineken semi-final at the Aviva.

I say the middle because it happened at half-time. As the players traipsed off the field, James Lowe came up behind Pita Ahki, the Toulouse inside centre, and pinched his a**e. No need for #rugby metoo page - there was nothing sexual in the gesture and Ahki just kept on walking without turning his head - he knew who it was.

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A high-octane European semi-final, no quarter asked or given and a bloke gets his a**e groped. Who else would do such a thing? Lowe, a man as the song goes, with a personality so large he barely fits his circumstances.

Lowe dazzled and sparkled on Sunday and he was rationed only nine fleeting parcels of possession, yet he seemed to be involved in everything constructive and destructive that Leinster did. Could he have done more?

Years ago I refused to buy our club winger a pint after he had scored four tries that afternoon. Distracted by my refusal, he asked the obvious question.

"Because you should have scored eight or nine. Dropping a number of unopposed run-ins is a capital sin. You buy everyone on the team a pint you wasteful f**ker."

Lowe got over the whitewash three times but scored only once. You can't blame him really. The first try was pure Leinster - the finish was special. Lowe's special weapon?

He has got a big booty - why try fending off tacklers with a stiff arm when you can use your hips and your well-nourished a**e. Lowe has a priceless gift of being able to ride tackles with his hips.

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The extra yardage that he had no right to get and the placement of the ball are part of a compelling package in that particular score.

The try that was ruled out for Jack Conan's obstruction was noteworthy for two things - (1) Robbie Henshaw's passing can from time to time be distinctly average and (2) Lowe's pick-up at full pace of a ball placed below his knees was every bit as good as it looked. Lowe's third time over the line?

Well, he had no right to get there in the first place but a rare blot from him in trying to get the ball down to score - the act has rarely presented problems to him. He just forgot to bring it with him from his midriff.

Johann van Graan said before the Saracens game that "the more you search the less you find." Mark McCall will also do his work on Leinster and he can come up with a plan for Leinster's entire roster in terms of neutralising them.

The one guy he won't be able to figure out is Lowe. Is there such a word as uncompartmentalisable? There is now - I have just coined it. Lowe will represent a threat as big as the word I used to describe him.

The team that took the field on Sunday, with the exception of Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock pretty much tying for just one place, was the full-strength Leinster side. How is it that they manage to reassemble for the first time this season in a match that they could have lost. Take a bow the Leinster medical team.

Maybe I was economical with the truth there. Leinster could have won against Toulouse with the same team they put out against Ulster; in fact, Ulster would have beaten Toulouse in the Aviva with their full-strength side.

The questions we ask are just how good were Toulouse and then how much more room for improvement is there from Leinster going forward to the final on May 11?

Toulouse were indeed a difficult proposition but their selection for last Sunday was ridiculous.

Picking 35-year-old Joe Tekori at 22 stone on the flank and 36-year-old Jerome Kaino in the same back-row with the 6ft 6ins Rynhardt Elstadt was a tactical masterclass in, eh, picking big unfit blokes who won't last 40 minutes.

Add Charlie Faumuina and other assorted Chunkies, plus Richie Gray who is now purely a rugby tourist, and one thing will happen: you will get blown away at ruck time.

If Leinster control the breakdown and the pace of it, they are practically unbeatable. The lead-up to Lowe's try told you everything about how Leinster play. Leinster got their quicker, lighter, more mobile forwards running into the gaps and they cleared out those breakdowns with unquenchable resolve, breakneck speed and superior technique. On a rugby pitch, nimble and agile will always trump slow and lumbering.

As Munster found to their cost, once a team like Saracens come at you in waves the only practical thing you can do is give away a penalty.

Toulouse didn't even have the wit to do that - eventually they realised it and conceded to stop Leinster's momentum.

That pack that took the field for Toulouse, although big and powerful, just have not got the wherewithal to compete in a high-tempo game on a sunny day. What were Toulouse thinking? All that weight and bulk never told - even at tight.

To beat Leinster you also have to play as much of the game in their territory. Antoine Dupont is an outstanding scrum-half but for him to try and control the game from a position that is not his natural position - it's like a right-handed surgeon performing vasectomies with his left hand.

Romain Ntamack may not have been fully fit but the canny Zack Holmes knew all the angles. A Gallic shrug and a brown star for the messianic coach Regis Sonnes.

People tell me that Toulouse will win next year or the year after - not sure about that - all those experienced players will be gone or even further past their prime.

Leinster were strong and focused on the day.

They can improve significantly on that performance and if that team stays healthy - they will beat Saracens in two weeks' time because they have more quality and they haven't come close to hitting top gear!

NB - EPCR will have to do something for the semi-finals in relation to stadiums. 16,275 patrons at the Ricoh was a long way short of the 28,343 that came along to watch Coventry City play the mighty Accrington Stanley in February 2018 or the 26,741 souls that watched League One giants Gillingham play this February - a change of tack is required.

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