Striving to be the centre of attention


Filling a problem position, James Downey is enjoying Munster’s new style, writes GAVIN CUMMISKEY

In the documentary Being: Liverpool Brendan Rodgers remains relentlessly positive despite the string of poor results experienced by the former European giants on their long road back. For his new system to work, a style of play that is proven elsewhere, a philosophy that essentially got him the job in the first place, it requires loyalty from everyone involved in the club.

“We can only trust ourselves, no one else. Trust the supporters, because they are the best, and trust your family at home,” said Rodgers before Liverpool went out and got spanked 3-0 by WBA on the opening day of this season.

The parallels to Rob Penney’s arrival in Munster are obvious. To adopt a new way of playing requires the collective input; from tea lady to old pros like Jamie Carragher or Peter Stringer who no longer command starting places.

Penney’s task is arguably more challenging than Rodgers. Paul O’Connell remains on the periphery, Denis Leamy and David Wallace were taken before their time by broken joints and snapped ligaments while a juggernaut Saracens pack is seeking to brutally expose this transitional period.

Surely, the seeds that Penney only planted last summer will not bear fruit in time for this season to be a success.

“Well, for me, I hope that it gets sorted as soon as,” said Jimmy Downey, the Dublin-born centre and another bedding into Munster life. “It can only get better is the way of looking at it. Once everyone knows the system in and out, without even thinking about it, as long as everyone knows their roles, then things will come a lot easier. It just flows then.

“As you say, it is a long term thing but for me, personally, I don’t want to be waiting two, three years for it to kick in.”

That’s an old problem for any coach endeavouring to reconstruct a sporting dynasty. The boss, be it Rodgers or Penney, has been afforded time to let the cement dry on his building blocks but for a 31-year-old like Downey, signed on a two year contract, success is craved immediately.

He is old enough and wise enough, having banked 148 games for Northampton in five seasons after frustratingly short stints at Leinster, Connacht, Munster and Calvisano, to see the value in becoming a valuable cog in the new Munster wheel.

“Yeah, we are going away from the traditional Munster way of playing, spreading it a lot more, getting width as often as we can. Teams feel stretched when you do that.” He enjoys working with backs coach Simon Mannix, who he describes as approachable, while Penney simply radiates positive vibes.

“They are both so positive that when you make a mistake you expect a bollicking, which I got when I was in England, someone would be down your throat and it would make you afraid to make another mistake, but here you are not afraid to make mistakes.

“You can throw it around and when you are playing with confidence the ball tends to stick, things start to happen. I enjoy playing under the two of them. They have been good for me, giving a different dimension to my game.”

This is important to Downey, long been seen as a big, one dimensional number 12. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, he probably needs to show his full range of skills in a game like today’s before the general Irish public changes their attitude. They simply have not seen enough of him.

He certainly needs to be brilliant in the next two matches to change Declan Kidney’s mind. The Ireland coach finally moved away from Paddy Wallace as Gordon D’Arcy’s understudy last month, only to fast-track Luke Marshall from the Ulster bench to inside centre against Fiji.

It seemed an indication that Downey’s hope of finally earning international recognition is receding, making the heavyweight duel with English incumbent Brad Barritt a massive opportunity.

“When I didn’t play against Leinster (on October 6th) I said to myself, ‘Right, I have to nail down my day job first.’ It’s not like in England, where it was a little bit more comfortable. I have had to work harder, but I think I needed that, a bit more competition. They are not afraid to change it around.”

In the unlikely event that the ridiculously durable D’Arcy is unavailable for the Six Nations, does Kidney turn to a kid who Ulster coach Mark Anscombe won’t pick or a 6’2”, 16 stone veteran? “A few big weeks, as you say, is all you need. One big game, especially in these games, and that’s the way I have to look at it; perform well in the two games against quality international opposition. Getting used to playing with Rog and Earlsey, as well, helps.”

Barritt silenced a lot of critics in Twickenham last Saturday, producing a stunning performance despite the presence of possibly the greatest ever midfield trio in Dan Carter, Ma Nonu and Conrad Smith.

“Brad’s a great player, in fairness. I’ve come up against him a couple of times, lovely fella off the field as well, but once he crosses the line he is just hard. I do think he has got a good bit of unwarranted criticism. He showed last week that he has a number of different aspects to his game. His basics are the good thing about him; so solid defensively, does the job so well. You notice when he is not there because there are holes he would quietly go about filling.”

He could be talking about himself. Today is a big chance alright. You mention the history of the Munster 12 jersey, the impact of those who once hoovered on Ronan O’Gara’s shoulder like Rob Henderson, Trevor Halstead, Lifeimi Mafi and even Rua Tipoki with Jean de Villiers mentioned more for his status in the game than his time in Ireland.

“I am aware of the lads who have been there before me. A lot of foreigners so it could be seen as a problem position. Hopefully I’ll be problem solved. For the moment anyway. I just have to step up to the standards set by those boys, all quality players. It is in the back of my mind but I suppose it is nice to have an Irish 12 in there. Hasn’t been one for a while.”

The Penney mentality is seeping in. Mention of the mounting injuries, the obvious loss being O’Connell, and Downey provides an insight into how a professional rugby player’s mind works. Saracens may look at the loss of O’Connell, CJ Stander and others as a chance to beat Munster to a pulp in Thomond Park.

“I wouldn’t look at it like that. At this stage you want the lads who are playing week in, week out, who know the system. Paulie coming in, considering he wouldn’t have played as much and might be a bit off the boil . . . I know his presence is enormous, but the other boys are there, working hard and they have earned it.

“Are Saracens going to look at it and attack our second row, where Donnacha Ryan and Donncha O’Callaghan are playing?” What matters today and next week and for the rest of the season is to keep the faith, adhere to the Penney system no matter what the initial cost.

“The easy thing would be to say, ‘Okay, that’s not working lets go back.’ Rob makes us look at the evidence, shows us what we have created and what can be achieved if we keep going. He shows us where the holes are opening up, so long as everyone sticks with it. And everyone has bought into it and it is starting to work a lot more. We are turning the corner now.” There’s always going to be another road block around the bend but Jimmy Downey knows this better than most.

As Rodgers continually reminds the Liverpool players, “if it was easy it wouldn’t be worth doing.”

Munster v Saracens Previous meetings

November 28th, 1999

Pool stages, round two

Saracens 34 Munster 35

The Shannon pack that dominated the AIL – aided by Young Munster’s Claw, two amazingly talented Garryowen men and a hardened Aussie lock – signalled the beginning of a campaign to conquer Europe.

This was a ferocious battle with hugely powerful men like Francois Pienaar, Richard Hill, Julian White and Danny Grewcock immediately attempting to annihilate the Munster forwards. Perhaps shell-shocked by the early assaults, Mick Galway’s men, with Keith Wood on loan from Harlequins, went about reversing a 21-9 deficit, which still read 34-23 with eight minutes remaining.

Anthony Foley’s quick tap saw him driven over the line before Jeremy Staunton’s well-taken try in injury time left them one point adrift. Ronan O’Gara landed the match-winning conversion.

Saracens’ decision to introduce Paul Wallace for the last quarter backfired as his younger brother’s scrum shunted the English club off their own ball late on.

January 8th, 2000

Pool stages, round four

Munster 31 Saracens 30

The moment these men came to be seen as invincible on home turf. Pienaar, Tony Diprose and Hill came in search of a bloody revenge only to be met on the gainline by Alan Quinlan and Foley in particular. Gallimh and Clohessy also produced vintage displays but it was Wood who rose from a pile of bodies at the death to present O’Gara with the chance to seal the most famous victory the old stadium had witnessed since 1978. Munster had already secured the quarter-final spot but that conversion started something amazing.

April 27th 2008


Saracens 16 Munster 18

This was the marauding Munster pack at their peak, winning ugly in atrocious conditions. Not a vintage performance by Marcus, Fla, Bull, Donncha, Paulie, Quinny (who crossed for a clever try), Wally and Leams but, in their own ruthless, belligerent fashion, got the job done.

O’Gara added the extras, and a try, to leave former Munster coach Alan Gaffney and the great Richard Hill in tears , while the performance of Kiwi imports – Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi and Doug Howlett – ensured them a permanent seat among this sacred red order. The scrum creaked under the weight of Cobus Visagie and Census Johnston yet they always found a way. The manner of their success prompted the IRB to rewrite the rulebook but not in time to save Toulouse with greatness bestowed on this generation by attaining a second title in three years.

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