Easy­go­ing Kiwi wing a breath of fresh air

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - 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?”

‘This will prob­a­bly be the smartest busi­ness decision I’ll ever make’

James Lowe’s hon­esty off the field is as re­fresh­ing as his skills on it

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