It’s all about the money
Straight-talking Lowe on why he left home and gave up his All Blacks ambitions
‘I STRUGGLE IN TRAINING BECAUSE IT CAN BE VERY VERBAL’
AS a child, says James Lowe, he was ‘a little s***’. As an adult, he is much more likeable. Some of the hyperactivity that he says fuelled his childhood scrapes – ‘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’ – is detectable still, but it is candour that distinguishes a conversation with the Leinster winger.
The 25-year-old made his debut for the province in December after arriving from the Chiefs in Super Rugby. He grumbles good-humouredly about the rain that turned Dublin slate-grey last week, explaining that his native Nelson on New Zealand’s south island is the sunniest place in the country.
We’ve long known, of course, that it isn’t the climate that lures players from the southern hemisphere to play in Ireland. We know, too, that one of the most compelling motivations is money. It’s just not common to hear players admit as much.
‘I’m realistic,’ says Lowe. ‘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 (as a professional player), and then who knows? I could be in a factory if I’m not smart.’
This does not make Lowe a mercenary; it makes him a professional athlete with an understanding of his talents and, consequently, his value.
Unreasonable demands are too often made of imports into Ireland’s rugby system. They are expected to prostrate themselves before us, renouncing their past lives and embracing all the foibles and idiosyncrasies of Irish life.
These expectations are daft. Money motivating a player’s career decisions is not a sin; the clue is in that word professional, after all. Lowe was one of the most talented wingers in Super Rugby, but he is candid again in revealing the rugby reasons for his departure from home.
‘I can catch, pass and kick and they didn’t really need that on the wings,’ he says, referring to the All Blacks’ use of powerful, straight runners like Julian Savea on the wings when Lowe was jostling to be noticed.
‘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.’
Because he is uncapped, Lowe will become eligible for Ireland after three years in the system here. By that time Joe Schmidt will probably be gone as national coach, and his successor will be rebuilding a team ahead of the 2023 World Cup.
Lowe will be 28 years of age then, too, and there is no indication that playing in green is an ambition that blazes within him.
He is a serious talent, though, as the plain statistic of nine tries in 10 Leinster matches so far this season indicates. He is not, as he concedes, a muscly attacker as happy to go through defenders as around them.
Speed, sidesteps and elusive running lines are more Lowe’s game.
‘Like, I’m weak as p*** in the gym, trust me,’ he says with a shrug.
‘I’m terrible but I’m working with the right people to get that sorted.’
That arresting selfanalysis is part of a hymn to the facilities at Leinster, where he says the extensive expertise available is helping him get stronger and more forceful.
One presumes Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster are satisfied with the impression he has made in his current state.
Lowe’s unpredictability has raised some comments about potential defensive vulnerability, but his quality in attack provides generous compensation for any lapses. And he is determined to improve the more regimented parts of his game, he says.
‘When I first came here I really struggled. I was talking to Stu 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.’
For a man happy to talk about his struggles in school, Lowe worked briefly in education before becoming a full-time rugby player.
It runs against his free-spirited image to think of him in a classroom, but these circumstances were specific.
‘There was a cricket coach – I actually went to school with his son – he was a principal at a nearby school and he was like, “Okay, we can take you on as a relief teacher. We’ve actually got this naughty kid, really naughty”.
‘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,’ says Lowe.
‘So I looked after him. He was pretty much the same size as me as a 12-yearold. 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. ‘So I looked after him.’ That isn’t the only surprising feature of a childhood one could have presumed was devoted to sporting excellence and messing.
Lowe suffered with rheumatoid arthritis as a teenager.
‘I got it when I think I was 14 or 15. It was during the cricket season; I started getting a rash and didn’t know what it was.
‘A couple of weeks later I couldn’t get out of bed. I had a rash all over my body. Went to the doctor and they didn’t know what it was.
‘They did a couple of tests and sent me down to some rheumatologist and then they were like, “Yeah, you’ve got rheumatoid arthritis”.’
No longer, he reports, as he grew out of it eventually. But that story, like many others, is related with a willingness to accept that life can be a storm as well as a breeze. Lowe is, it appears, a man happy to treat imposters all the same.
That has helped in dealing with the regulation in European competition that limits teams to two non-European players. Leinster have three: Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park and Scott Fardy.
That is why concerns earlier in the week about the fitness of Luke McGrath were particularly relevant to Lowe and Fardy; were McGrath (left) unfit, Leinster would have to pick scrum-half Gibson-Park, meaning only one of the other two would be in the squad for Saturday’s semi-final against the Scarlets.
Anxiety over McGrath’s ankle injury has eased, but Lowe is bemused by the regulation.
‘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, I’ve got two weeks where I can give it my all.
‘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.’
Lowe’s class should keep him safe even if Luke McGrath’s fitness complicates Leinster’s plans this week.
He was a try-scorer in the quarter-final win against Saracens, and is responsible for much of the quality that makes Leinster’s the best backline in Europe.
‘I’ve only been here six months but played them twice and there’s definitely a grudge,’ he says of the Scarlets showdown.
‘It’s exciting. It will be good to have both teams with all their internationals actually playing and hitting it out.’