Diligent Downey finally reaps reward with first Ireland cap against Canada in Toronto

The 32-year-old centre will earn his first Ireland cap after a lifetime in the shad

James Downey during a squad training session at Upper Canada College, Toronto, yesterday. Photograph: Inpho

James Downey during a squad training session at Upper Canada College, Toronto, yesterday. Photograph: Inpho

Sat, Jun 15, 2013, 01:00



1. One who has fully served an apprenticeship in a trade or craft and is a qualified worker in another’s employ.

2. an experienced reliable worker, athlete, or performer especially as distinguished from one who is brilliant or colourful.

Ever take a ticket at the motor tax office and have to wait for what seems an interminable amount of time?

Try doing that your entire career.

Finally, last Wednesday evening in Toronto, Jimmy Downey’s number was called. The Ireland number 12 jersey is on loan to him, probably just for today, but he’ll take it and plough into the first Canadian that gets in his way. And the second and the third.

Just ask Harlequins fullback Mike Brown.

This is the 32-year-old’s reward after a lifetime on that unforgiving, underpaid meandering off-Broadway rugby road he has travelled since making a name for himself in the AIL way back in 2003.

Not long ago a reader of The Irish Times contacted the sports editor to complain about yours truly. Nothing new there, but the reason for the man’s ire was interesting.

Downey being called a “journeyman” hadn’t been digested so well. And it was “James” not “Jimmy.” Unfortunately, we never got to talk to the reader but that’s probably for the best because a journeyman career is exactly what his has been.

It is meant as a term of respect. Maybe “survivor” would be a more universally complimentary description.

Anyway, this is the story of an ordinary, decent rugby player called James “Jimmy” Downey.

In Luke 4:24 Jesus said, “No prophet is welcome in his hometown.”

A big lump from Belvedere College, Downey was overlooked by Leinster and Ireland schools, the only national recognition being the Ireland Under-19 squad, under Declan Kidney.

There was no Academy contract after the Leaving Certificate so he went to college and wasn’t long breaking onto the club scene.

Clontarf found a channel for him to thunder down, helping them reach the league final at Lansdowne Road, only for Ballymena to flood their team with Ulster professionals and escape north with the spoils.

“It was a great Clontarf team. Off the back of that season I think six or seven lads got contracts.”

That seems like an awfully long time ago.

“It was a long time ago,” he laughed. “Leinster were playing Perpignan in the Heineken semi and Matt Williams involved me in the squad, just to help out as a bag holder, but I really enjoyed it.”

That was over 10 years ago.

This tour
Before this tour got under way Downey was called into Carton House as cover for Stuart Olding. The promising 20-year-old being the latest in a long line of inside centres to hop scotch over him.

“It will only be for the week in Carton, James,” he was assured. “You’re only touring if Stuart’s injury doesn’t clear up.”

The highly-promising Belfast three-quarter recovered but the management made a late call, after much discussion, to bring Downey to Houston as there wasn’t another inside centre around what with Gordon D’Arcy and Luke Marshall on ice for the summer.

Downey’s form had been patchy enough until a cracking performance at The Stoop when Munster crushed Harlequins in April. That was why he moved from Northampton to Cork last year. To do what he does but to do it in front of the Irish public. To get a cap.

“I was a bit hit and miss, didn’t have the form I wanted consistently all season. I suppose in the Premiership you play every week and can keep form. I suppose it can be a bit stop start in the Rabo, maybe it didn’t suit me as much.”

November came and went, Marshall was promoted and retained for the Six Nations when D’Arcy pulled up lame. “Look, when Luke came in he did a great job. They were looking for a younger lad, and I understand that.”

There was a time when he was that younger lad. Only problem was Shane Horgan, D’Arcy and David Quinlan were around as well, locking up the inside centre slots in Dublin 4.

Essentially Quinlan edged him out of Leinster, Mark McHugh doing something similar after two respectable seasons with Connacht, while Munster discarded him in the 2006 pre-season, forcing him to start considering another professional.

He clung on in by his fingertips, playing a season with Calvisano in Lombardy, before Quinlan re-entered his life.

Forced to retire in 2007, after repeated concussions, Northampton coach Jim Mallinder wondered if there was any more decent-sized Irish inside centres that could do a thankless job.

Quinlan suggested someone even bigger.

“Yeah, we’ve a love-hate relationship. Quinny’s a great lad. He did a lot for me. He spoke to Northampton on my behalf.

“For a ’Rock lad to look after a Belvo lad, it’s rare!”

Career progress
So, his career took off but England remains a notoriously difficult place to get Irish recognition.

“Things happen for a reason. When I was in England I was out of bounds for a while but I was playing every week.”

That’s what made him. A Munster visit to Franklin’s Garden in October 2009 sticks in the mind.

“I made a big hit on Jean de Villiers and it went well so people are talking about you again.

“Out of sight you’re out of mind, but I was happy out doing what I was doing. Sure, I wasn’t even thinking about it but then you play an Irish team and you are suddenly back in the shop window. I was only 27 then.”

But still, Kidney refused to open his purse.

“I could’ve stayed in England but I always wanted to go home at some stage and prove myself. I left under a bit of a cloud. I wanted to play for my country, I didn’t want there to be any regrets.

“I didn’t want to take the easy option in England. So I came back and gave it a shot.”

Nervous about winning your first cap?

“Nah, sure I’ve played in plenty of big games so this is just another one.

“Maybe if I was 21, like, I’m sure Robbie Henshaw was quite nervous last week, and just wanted to get his hands on the ball.

“I’ll be fine. I’ll just go out and put my .”