James Lowe ready to meet the Lions before move to Leinster
Leinster-bound prospect mans fullback berth for Maori All Blacks on Saturday
Chiefs’ James Lowe celebrates a try: “We’re bound by blood so there’s something a bit more in that. This is a team where you’re brothers before you put on this shirt, before you put on this fern.” Photograph: Marty Melville/Photosport/Inpho
The Maori-Lions game has particular intrigue for Leinster fans. Three of their number are in the Lions’ starting line-up, Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Tadhg Furlong, with another, Jack McGrath, on the bench. And then there’s the Leinster-bound Chiefs and Maori fullback cum winger James Lowe.
Lowe is a fast, elusive, strong player and brilliant finisher, with a big left foot to boot, as it were. Lowe turns 25 next month and having signed for three years, his acquisition looks like a seriously good piece of business by Leinster.
For this game, interestingly, Maori coach Colin Cooper has chosen Lowe at fullback, whereas he’s opted to play Damian McKenzie, the Chiefs’ free-spirited and match-winning fullback, at outhalf. It will be particularly interesting to see how Sexton’s kicking game, along with that of Conor Murray, might test Lowe.
Asked to assess Sexton as an outhalf and what problems he might give him at full-back, Lowe pauses. “Oh, he can kick the ball, can’t he? I guess at fullback a big thing you do assess are their kickers. Fortunately the Lions only have right-footed kickers, which makes it a little bit easier as a full-back, but you’ve still got a lot of ground to cover.
“Damo [McKenzie] is the one who does all the running at the Chiefs. I sort of just hang out the sides and look after his flanks, but now I’ve got to be the one in the middle running around.
“I watched him in the first two games. He’s a good organiser, I feel. He knows when to give it to the backs, when to keep it in the forwards, when the forwards are short on numbers, he’ll use a ‘12’ to come in and carry it up. It’s something exciting. I guess on Saturday night I’m trying to run over him and next year I’ll be trying to look after him. That’s one way of looking at it.”
Then there’s also the question as to what McKenzie might do to the Lions.
“I played a lot at fullback at school, and at Mitre 10, which is our provincial competition, I played a fair bit there, and a little bit up here. But when you’ve got Damien McKenzie, who in my opinion is one of the best fullbacks in the world, you leave him there and just try to run and keep up with him.”
“He’s deceptively quick. He’s got quite short steps so he doesn’t actually lose pace when he runs. In terms of a stepper you sort of slow down and then try to speed up. Damien has got a skill set like no other. His speed is ridiculous. It’s hard to see on TV but his swerve and everything, he’s a 5ft 4in version of Beauden Barrett.”
Back to Lowe.
I just absolutely love the game, love everything about it. I’m competitive by nature so any chance I get I cherish it and I love it
As well as an exciting signing, he’s also an interesting one. He gives a summation of his career to The Irish Times in his cheerful, good-humoured way.
He started playing rugby, like almost all Kiwi boys, when he was “about five years old. If I could it would have been about three. I was a handful as a kid, running before I was crawling, running around on couches and tackling my sister. There’s so many holes in my hallway, man. I’d be just running up and down kicking stuff. But I started about five for a club called Stoke in Nelson and I moved out to Waimea Old Boys when I was about six or seven. It’s been a while.”
He took to it like the proverbial duck to water.
“Aw, yeah. Ball in the hand sort of thing. I just absolutely love the game, love everything about it. I’m competitive by nature so any chance I get I cherish it and I love it.”
He’s the youngest of three children to Yvonne and Jeff, his dad who also played rugby.
“My old man did until he found beer. That’s what he said anyway. No, my dad played rugby, he was a winger as well. That’s pretty much it. He’s a country boy from back home [Nelson], played for Rangers back home. My mother’s side, they all love sport. My mum played netball, my sister [Sharleene] represented New Zealand Secondary Schools at netball, she played volleyball and everything. I guess sport kind of runs in the family. It was a way to keep us out of trouble”
An ongoing battle with rheumatoid arthritis since he was a teenager, and the sight of careers ended by head knocks, played a significant part in Lowe’s decision to make the most of his time in the precarious business of being a rugby player.
There’s also a recognition that he has had the misfortune, or fortune, to live in a time of truly vintage New Zealand rugby players, and certainly so in the case of outside backs.
Asked if he had a pang of regret about leaving New Zealand given the brand of rugby adopted by almost all sides here, Lowe reasoned: “I guess we’re born this way, this is how we play. I’ve got no regrets of leaving NZ. I’ve given it my all for three years now. I feel this is probably the right time for me to leave even though I’m still young.
“You’ve got to remember these All Blacks are probably going to go down as the best that have ever worn these jerseys before. It’s a shame I didn’t get to the top but it’s a great chance that’s come up and there’s still time.”
Indeed, he will barely have turned 28 by the time he qualifies to play for Ireland, although he is quick to point out that he hasn’t even played for Leinster yet!
Growing up, like all Kiwi boys, Lowe dreamed of being an All Black. But now the 24-year-old Chiefs winger cum fullback looks like the potential long-term heir to Isa Nacewa, who told The Irish Times of him: “I think it’s an unbelievable signing, I really do. He’s been one of the form wingers in Super Rugby for the Chiefs. His partnership with Damien McKenzie has been phenomenal. He’s one of the best attacking players in Super Rugby. His try-scoring rate highlights that.
“I was over the moon,” adds Nacewa when hearing that Lowe would be a Leinster teammate. “He’s got a cannon of a left foot that will come to use, so yeah fingers crossed he gets over here and enjoys himself. He and Jamison Gibson-Park will have known each other so I think Leinster are lucky to have him.”
The engaging and good-humoured Lowe confirms that Gibson-Park was one of two people he consulted.
I’m excited to play with Isa, that’s for sure! When I was growing up he was the man
“It’s an expansive brand of rugby I’m looking forward to. When you’re looking at signing with another club you do your homework, and there were two people at Leinster that I spoke to; Jamison Gibson-Park and Hayden Triggs. I talked to both of them, and they both spoke very highly of the club.
“It’s good to get an opinion from someone who has your best interests at heart as well. Hayden’s been around the block and he’s been around a few clubs in Europe too, and all he said was that Leinster gave him a great opportunity and he talked about what they had done for him. And that made the decision a lot easier.”
As for hearing that Nacewa is excited at the thought of playing with him, Lowe widens his eyes and smiles.
“I’m excited to play with Isa, that’s for sure! When I was growing up he was the man, back in the day, and apparently he still is, running around at 35. I mean if I’m 35 and running around and looking that good, I’ve taken something I shouldn’t have,” he says, laughing.
“No, I’m excited to link up with Isa, and the club in general. It’s exciting times.”
So what does he want to achieve with Leinster?
“It’s not like I chose them by any means, but I wanted to go to an environment in which I’d still be able to challenge myself. I feel like I’ve a lot more to give in this game, and a club that’s regarded as a strong club in Europe, very professional, a lot of Irish internationals, I feel like that’s a place where I can challenge myself, and they’ll challenge me.”
For the moment though, he still has plenty to play for, the Super Rugby with the Chiefs, the Mitre Ten Cup and Ranfury Shield with Tasman, and perhaps most of all, as a one-off game, this match. Were the Maori to win, he reckons it might be the biggest win of his career.
“It would be huge. I guess it would be the biggest game that I’ve come into in my career, that’s for sure. I mean you go into every game trying to win and this is another opportunity against a high-quality side. It’s the best side out of four nations. It’s huge. It’s huge.”
He’s also playing with his blood brothers, and for the last time.
“As a kid you’ve always dreamed of representing your country and I guess being part of this in a deeper way, on my mother’s side, this is their home. So it’s huge. We’re bound by blood so there’s something a bit more in that. This is a team where you’re brothers before you put on this shirt, before you put on this fern.”
“It’s potentially the last time I wear a silver fern on my chest as well, so I mean there’s a lot riding on that. I guess I don’t think about that too much. Every game there’s thousands of people watching and questioning, and I guess prodding and poking. So it’s just another game in that sense, just that this time it’s a silver fern on my chest representing our native people.”