The sun hats supplied to the Irish players in Tours provided a more prosaic function on Thursday as they filed off the team bus in the Parisian suburb of Bussy Saint-Georges. As the rain hopped off the pavements and temperatures plunged to 17 degrees, any cover was welcome.
The upside was the prospect of meeting South Africa in less hostile temperatures, although that may even have been tempered by the violence of the showers as bodies scampered along the building and into the foyer.
Stepping through puddles in areas around the hotel where loungers might normally have been placed, there has been a change of mood within the Irish team from the muggy southwest as the cold and reality of a Rugby World Cup meeting with the Springboks in Stade de France bites.
James Lowe is not oblivious to the breadth of the demand, or the measured, bland compliments emanating from the South African camp. He typically prefers not to overcomplicate his rugby or convolute his job on the team. As a player he has been described by Irish coaches as having the X-factor but his off-pitch personality and disposition is to find a lighthearted touch on almost everything.
“Don’t get me wrong, but it’s a game of rugby at the end of the day,” Lowe says deflating Ireland’s biggest match in four years, before launching into a story about calling his wife that morning and relaying the conversation, the nub of which was her abject horror at the hair he had grown under his nose since their last talk.
“My wife, she was pissed off, when I Facetimed her,” says Lowe running his finger and thumb along the grain to the corners of his mouth. “Because she was teasing all the girls, the other partners, that her husband hadn’t got a tash yet.”
Banter is often easier than talking about how Ireland can beat the world champions, what their threats are, how he will treat the wing challenges of Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe, and if he had ever imagined himself in such a position growing up in New Zealand?
In South Africa, Lowe sees pretty much what everyone else does, their physical strength, their ability to cut defences from out wide, blazing line speed and, with seven forwards on the bench, an intention to play the game in a certain way, with scrumhalf Cobus Reinach the only back in the replacements.
“Yeah, jack of all trades. If I was the only back on the bench, I would be... we would be in a lot of trouble,” Lowe says pouring on the self-deprecation, before fielding a query on whether he sees the 7-1 Springbok split as a risk.
“Em, if Kwagga Smith’s in the centre, I do, yeah!” Lowe says. “I didn’t read too much into it. I saw it on Tuesday night. It was always going to be something different, wasn’t it? I think everyone could have guessed that and with the 7-1 split, Ports (Andrew Porter) is probably in a bit more trouble than me.
“Because playing in the backs is not as attritional. We’re used to 80 minutes, y’know? He’s got to get up off the ground and push people harder than they push him. It’s interesting. Never faced it before. I think it’s the second time that they’ve done it. It worked the first time; hence they’re trying it again.”
There is an honesty to Lowe that draws his character as a free spirit. When he arrived in Ireland, rather than fret, he spoke cheerily about his inability to master defensive challenges. He possesses enough self-awareness to know what his weaknesses are and his strengths – tries.
Internationally Lowe is scoring, on average, every second game, 11 tries from 23 caps, two of those coming in this Rugby World Cup against Romania and Tonga and another against England in the August warm-up match. To a degree he hides in plain sight, maintaining his closer thoughts by being the nearest thing in the Irish squad to an open book.
But along with the other players who spoke on Thursday, including Andrew Porter, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Johnny Sexton, this week Lowe is sanguine and grounded, giving little away except perhaps a resistance to being cowed or intimidated by Rassie Erasmus and his team.
He was part of this year’s Grand Slam win and has been central to Ireland’s recent highpoints. Success and Lowe have been dancing partners for several years.
“You enjoy every week you are in this environment. That’s for sure,” Lowe says. “To get to a World Cup has been amazing. You know, incrementally I guess our games have gotten harder. After the first two test matches this week has been a whole new beast. It’s where we’re going to find out where we are at. We think we are in a good place if we put ourselves on the front foot.
“I’m very, very excited. It (rugby) is the one thing I think I know how to do so far in life, so in preparation you just make sure you get across all the work. It doesn’t matter who your opponent is. We’ve shown a level of respect to what’s in front of us and I think our previous performances have shown that.
“Obviously, [the Springboks are] very, very big men. But if you look at the backline, it’s scary enough. You just look at the two wingers there. They are very similar players, great on their feet, great reads on D, seriously brave for their size. I know we can expect them to kick the ball a lot, but ball in hand they have serious, serious individual threats.
“They have proven even in the first few games how good they are with ball in hand. We all know it, they are physical. But they have also got some freaks in the backline.”
Lowe’s mischievous cheer is also a form of energy around camp. As he sits at the table interrupting questions directed at Porter, he urges the room to look at the Irish prop’s gym pictures on Instagram as proof of fitness to go 12 rounds with props Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff.
What makes the player from Nelson, New Zealand, one of the primary characters with Ireland is his ability to bring that energy on to the pitch. He is not a winger who will watch from the touchline as a match passes him by.
“Any time you get the opportunity to wear the Irish jumper, you’re out there to win,” Lowe says. “And obviously as the stakes get bigger, the further we go through this tournament, I mean it’s not do or die, but there’s no way we’re going out there to lose either, y’know?!
“To really put a statement on this competition is hopefully what we’re going to get and that will be reflected by the performance. Win or lose, if we put out a performance that we’re seriously proud of and can build on again, I don’t see why, when it comes to the knockout matches, we can’t keep improving.”
Lowe says he won’t lie, that he doesn’t reflect on his Irish career or the importance of this Rugby World Cup because “you are a long time retired, aren’t you”. Filling every minute, he knows no other way.