Sunday 22 April 2018

Reluctant journeyman driven by love of the game

James Downey, Munster
James Downey, Munster
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

James Downey was at his fiancée's home in Dublin in January last year when he got a phone-call he wasn't expecting. It was Rob Penney. The head coach gave it to him straight.

Munster had decided not to renew Downey's contract so he was being let go at the end of the season.

What? Downey was in shock. Penney said something about crunching the numbers and mentioned his age (he would turn 33 two months later) and younger players coming through. Downey had imagined playing another few years - in other words, the rest of his career - with Munster.

Apologies were later made for the fact that Downey was told about his future in the rather brutal manner of a phone-call rather than a face-to-face meeting. The after-kick was that Downey had to get his head around playing for a club which wasn't interested in him being part of its future.

Downey (right) is honest enough to admit that he found it very tough to deal with. His confidence was shot. Every time he played with Munster he felt like he was on trial to try and get a new employer.

It felt odd for Downey that he was still being picked for all the big games last season - like the Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Toulouse and the semi-final defeat to Toulon. He found himself becoming increasingly emotional towards the end of his time at Munster and "was in a bad way" after the European and Pro12 semi-final defeats.

Let's not romanticise professional rugby here. In the real world that Downey was in, of course he wanted to win a trophy with Munster before he left. But he knew he also needed to play in a final because it was a chance to show his worth.

This isn't your icing-on-top tale. This is the "s**t happens" story laced with plenty of what-ifs. It's easy to relate to Downey because he's had to deal with what plenty of people have had to deal with. Like white-knuckling it to save your job and the stress of the unknown. For Downey, it's been a case of rinse and repeat.

Downey would have loved a "one life, one club" way of living. Spending all his playing days with his home province Leinster would have been his idea of fantasy rugby. But when Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy ahead of you, you have to make a decision. If you want to play, you have to move.

Seven; that's the number of clubs Downey has played for. He doesn't want to be seen as some sort of journeyman but when he mulled over that number this week it was easy to feel his surprise at the number of clubs he's notched up.

There was Leinster, Connacht, Munster, Calvisano, Northampton, (back to Munster), Glasgow, and these days he's on loan at Wasps, living in London.

I tell him he is rugby's version of Robbie Keane. He laughs.

But there were times when it wasn't really funny at all. When UFC fighter Conor McGregor was in town this week, I wanted to ask him if he ever doubted himself, just to get a reaction. But when you pose that same question to someone like Downey, you do so just to get the truth.

Downey says of course it makes you doubt yourself when your contract isn't being renewed.

"You're told you're not wanted so your confidence takes a beating," Downey concedes. "But you have to regroup and get your head right again as you still have to go out and perform".

He believes Munster got the best out of him initially. It was Tony McGahan who signed him and sold him a Munster which would play direct rugby. Which would have suited Downey. But then it all changed before he even joined, with McGahan out and Penney in.

"What if" McGahan had stayed? If you felt frustrated at the way Downey was being used, imagine how he felt. He was being skipped a lot in games. But that wouldn't have been the original plan. Backs coach Simon Mannix would tell him that they wanted to get him into the game early. But then moves would break down and he wouldn't end up getting his hands on the ball.

When I ask Downey for one word to sum up his time at Munster, I expect him to say 'frustrating', but his answer is 'exciting'.

Thing is, Downey loves rugby. Sometimes I wonder how much players actually like the sport they're playing. And does that love diminish when you're being made to doubt yourself? Not so, it seems. Even when he played with Glasgow earlier this season he helped out as a backs coach with amateur neighbours Glasgow Academicals RFC.

For now, it's all about Wasps' European Champions Cup quarter-final in Toulon tomorrow. This is seen as more than just your average banker for the home side. For Downey, this game will be about proving people wrong for the Wasps players. It sounds like he's at the right club.

Downey is not sure what the short-term future holds. His season at Glasgow hit the buffers because he wasn't getting enough game-time and he wanted to play.

What will definitely happen at the end of the season is his marriage to Claudine McDonagh in Tipperary. After our interview, I text him to say that maybe his upcoming wedding could be the "one life, one club" union he always wanted.

Maybe more than anything in rugby, this partnership will be built to last.

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