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Analysis: Exciting James Lowe bringing a smile to Leinster faces

The 25-year-old wing had an impressive impact against Connacht.

IT PERHAPS SHOULDN’T be anything remarkable in rugby, but it’s always refreshing to see a player with a smile on their face in the thick of the action.

James Lowe is one such player and while Leinster hardly needed a breath of fresh air in their impressive season, the Kiwi is bringing something new to the party with his infectious energy and big personality.

James Lowe

Having scored two tries in his first appearance away to Treviso in early December, Lowe started against Munster on St. Stephen’s Day and then came to the fore on Monday in his home debut against Connacht, an absorbing 21-18 Guinness Pro14 win for Leinster.

The left wing produced an attacking performance of crowd-thrilling quality and his ability to offload out of the tackle was a key point of difference for Leinster in their victory.

Those who had watched the 25-year-old in action for the Chiefs and Tasman Makos in recent years won’t have been surprised by his impact and the sense is that there is plenty more to come from Lowe.

For now, a positive start on the pitch as he settles into his new life in Ireland is extremely exciting for Lowe and for Leinster.

Moment of magic

The standout moment in Lowe’s performance was the sumptuous reverse offload we see below, allowing Noel Reid to deliver the scoring pass to Max Deegan, who finishes impressively.

Lowe OL

It’s a spectacular piece of skill and it also highlights some of Lowe’s key strengths.

Connacht are initially in a strong position to defend this Leinster attack. Indeed, they essentially have a 4-on-3 defensively and shouldn’t be under any major threat here.

4-on-3

However, Finlay Bealham [yellow 1] is slow to advance onto Leinster’s first receiver, Reid [blue 1], and that causes indecision in Ultan Dillane [yellow 2] just outside him.

We can see below that Dillane sits down on his heels for a split second, turning his shoulders in towards Reid [yellow arrow], unsure whether Bealham will get to the Leinster midfielder.

Lowe Straighten

As this is happening defensively, we see Lowe’s excellent ability to read the game as he accelerates onto a hard, straight line [red above], directly into the space that has suddenly opened up between Dillane and Jack Carty.

Having carried the ball for Leinster just two phases previously, Lowe had been shifting back towards the left-hand touchline but he recognises the opportunity.

Dillane looks to recover and attempts a low tackle on Lowe, but Carty has already been turned in [yellow below] by the threat of the Leinster wing’s direct line.

Carty Commit

Lowe manages to stand up through Dillane’s tackle and could potentially have even carried on himself, but he has already identified Reid’s looping line around him.

Lowe has carried the ball into contact in his left arm – looking to fend Dillane with his right [a trait we will return to soon] – but he swiftly transfers it into his right hand to allow himself the space to offload behind the retreating Carty.

Lowe Offload

Lowe’s offload puts Reid in behind Carty and Connacht wing Niyi Adeolokun is left in no man’s land, retreating first towards Reid and then desperately trying to cover back onto Deegan when the Leinster centre passes.

Deegan shows off his athleticism to finish superbly, a fine reward for Lowe’s moment of skill.

Fend to find space

Lowe had seven offloads in this game and his right-handed fend was a key weapon in creating favourable situations from which he could release the ball out of the tackle.

The fend is a skill that New Zealand rugby tends to place a great emphasis on and Lowe provided several prime examples of how effective it can be.

Lowe Fend

The Leinster wing puts Tiernan O’Halloran into the dirt on this occasion early on in the clash with Connacht. While power is obviously a key factor here, there is more to the skill than sheer physical capability.

Lowe collects Fergus McFadden’s pass slightly behind him, meaning his forward progress is slowed, but his next actions ensure Leinster are very much moving in the right direction.

Lowe’s little goose-step causes O’Halloran to hesitate slightly, with the Kiwi wing accelerating to the Connacht man’s outside shoulder.

Fend

As we see above, O’Halloran knows that Lowe’s fend is coming and he reaches out in an attempt to bat down the Leinster man’s right hand.

But Lowe, even on the move, ever so slightly readjusts and has a second bite, forcing his right hand beyond O’Halloran’s left.

Fend .1

The accuracy of Lowe’s fend in this instance is excellent, as he directs his initial power towards O’Halloran’s face and neck area – an ideal target when looking to deter a defender from completing a tackle.

As Lowe’s hand slips down onto O’Halloran’s chest we see the explosive power as he shunts the Connacht fullback into the ground while maintaining his own balance.

Carty covers across onto Lowe and, as we see below, the Leinster man misses with his second fend effort, sliding just over Carty’s back.

Patience Miss Fend

But Lowe is patient before attempting his offload here, with Matt Healy moving towards the tackle too. Release the ball too early and Healy will be able to block it. Release it too late and the Connacht wing will be able to wrap Lowe up ball-and-all.

Lowe’s timing, however, is good and he gets the ball away to the supporting Kearney to allow Leinster’s attack to continue.

Sexton support

Later in the first half, we saw another impressive fend from Lowe as he beat Carty down the left-hand side with Leinster running out of their own 22.

Fend to Offload

With Dan Leavy outside him, Lowe could potentially have looked to straighten and fix Carty before passing here, but he backs himself to make gains.

Johnny Sexton gives Lowe time and space with his pass and again we see accuracy from Lowe with his fend, this time finding Carty’s right shoulder – with which the Connacht out-half naturally wants to lead into the tackle.

Scrambling across the pitch, Carty is as high into contact as O’Halloran was before and Lowe takes full advantage.

Fend to Bounce

While Lowe doesn’t put Carty into the ground this time, we see him use the fend to accelerate himself, almost bouncing away from the contact and leaving himself in a powerful position.

O’Halloran advances towards Lowe, having swung up from the backfield and we see some sharp footwork from the Leinster man. Aiding his step infield off his left foot is a little ‘sell’ with his eyes to O’Halloran’s outside shoulder before he steps in.

Sell the Eyes

O’Halloran gets his left arm around Lowe but the ball is free and Sexton is rewarded for running a typically intelligent support line after his original pass to Lowe.

The offloading success seems to be infectious here, as Sexton releases the ball from the subsequent Kieran Marmion tackle to allow Luke McGrath to sprint all the way down into the Connacht 22, completing a wildly successful exit for Leinster.

Roam for work

Lowe has a high work rate and while holding width is so often an important part of the job, he excels when roaming infield as Leinster play from left to right.

Beat Defenders Roam

We get one good example above, with Lowe popping up inside replacement prop Ed Byrne to take a short pass and surge through Dillane’s tackle, again causing havoc for Connacht’s defence and leading to a try-scoring opportunity for the home side.

Below, we find Lowe roaming infield to pop up outside sub scrum-half Nick McCarthy – having held his width on the left for several phases beforehand.

Roam and Late - Having Held Width

It’s Lowe’s late arrival that leaves Connacht in some defensive confusion, as the Leinster wing patiently looks to hide for as long as possible.

Late Arrival

He arcs around to McCarthy’s outside and then we see that straightening acceleration once again as he moves onto the ball to accept the short pass.

Connacht’s Jarrad Butler has initially lined himself up on Sexton in this instance, with the out-half having looked like being the first receiver.

That means Lowe’s late arrival and acceleration onto the ball leave Butler turning infield to react, in turn meaning that the Connacht back row can’t make a dominant tackle.

He goes in low on Lowe’s left leg, but again we see that insatiable fight from Lowe as he keeps his feet in desperation to offload.

Fight

Even after he has shifted it back to McCarthy, we can see above that Lowe is still fighting to stay on his feet and alive in the game – even with Butler having attempted to fell him and Sexton having fallen into him.

On feet

Lowe simply doesn’t accept being grounded and even when he is, the response is usually swift.

Lowe Back to Feet

The incident above gives us a fine illustration of that, as Lowe is tackled to the deck by Adeolokun, releases the ball, and instantly bounds to his feet and scoops it back up himself.

It’s a skill that the likes of Brian O’Driscoll were proficient in in recent times, but it’s also something very Kiwi-esque and All Black Ben Smith is one of the best in the world at this.

Lowe has come through the world-class coaching of the likes of Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith at the Chiefs, coaches who place a central focus on the speed at which players get back to their feet after contact – both in attack and defence.

This is one of the most important statistics to many Kiwi sides – England’s Eddie Jones is another disciple – and Lowe bears all the signs of this school of thought.

Even in defence, we can see evidence of his desire to get back on his feet and into play as swiftly as possible.

D Work Rate

After a break and offload from Bundee Aki, we see good work rate and reading of the game from Lowe to come in off his wing and tackle O’Halloran.

What’s more impressive, however, is how quickly Lowe is thinking about his next action.

Work To Feet

On the very next phase, Lowe makes another tackle, hitting in on Eoghan Masterson to force the ball loose and allow Leinster to recover from the urgent scramble they’ve been placed under by Aki’s bust.

Tackle 2

Beat the opposition back to your feet, have more players up off the ground than they do, be organised and set earlier than they are.

So goes the thinking, and Lowe epitomises this desire.

Being complete

Lowe’s attacking quality makes him an outstanding player to watch and hugely effective with ball in hand but, of course, wing play is not all about the glamorous stuff.

We’ve already pointed out that Lowe has a big appetite for work, and while he is still working to become a complete winger, all the tools are there.

Lowe is more than willing to hit rucks when required to do so, with his power beneficial in this regard.

Ruck

We see Lowe helping Leinster to quick ball with a clearout on Marmion above, and he looks to really finish out his contribution by felling the Connacht scrum-half as he attempts to get back to his feet.

As we saw in Ulster’s win over Munster with John Cooney’s disallowed try, there is a real danger in overdoing these ‘deep’ clearouts, but Lowe is looking to give his team an edge here by keeping a Connacht player off their feet and out of the defensive line.

It’s certainly one to be careful with but there tends to be less danger of being penalised further out the pitch.

We see Lowe running at Connacht on kick return in the clip below and he once again beats a defender, but we’re as interested in his work on the deck.

Counter

Having fought through Adeolokun’s tackle – even using his right hand as a tool to drag himself free – Lowe is off balance and felled by Dillane.

We can see below that the Connacht lock is in a decent position to jackal over the ball and look for a turnover or earn a penalty, but Lowe is aware and adds in a full roll – the ‘bodyball’ Joe Schmidt preaches – to buy Leinster time to clear out.

Bodyball

It’s another small detail, but these are often the things that can prove decisive in games or that coaches turn to when looking to make tight selection calls.

Defensively, Lowe didn’t have a huge amount to do against Connacht last weekend with five tackles.

He did miss one tackle turning in on Tom Farrell in the first half, which we see below.

Missed Tackle

It’s close to the Leinster tryline and Lowe will have been disappointed with his effort here. Sexton – again in typical fashion – works in behind the defensive line after the ball moves past him and is in position to cover for Lowe’s miss.

Lowe’s power means he is capable of big tackles but he will continue to work on his consistency in this area and is certainly in a good place to learn from others – the record-breaking Josh van der Flier among them.

His decision-making on the outside edge has generally been strong in recent seasons with the Chiefs, although no player is perfect in this regard either. Lowe did come in for some criticism after the Munster game for biting in on two occasions but the conceded tries to Andrew Conway were certainly not solely on his shoulders.

We saw during the Lions’ win over the Māori All Blacks that Lowe is not world-class under the high ball yet either, but again Leinster is an ideal learning ground in that regard.

Lowe has a huge left boot too, something which we’ve seen glimpses of in his opening three games for Leinster. He often gets spectacular distance on his kicks but sometimes lacks the decision-making and accuracy that will make it an even greater weapon.

As with every ambitious wing in the world, Lowe’s desire to be a complete player continues.

A leader

One of the reasons Leinster signed Lowe was his character. He is known as an extremely positive and encouraging person even away from the pitch and is already having an impact on the province in this regard.

On the pitch, we are seeing plenty of signs of Lowe emerging as a leader for Leo Cullen’s side too.

Vocal

It’s more difficult to illustrate Lowe’s in-play chat to team-mates – also said to be excellent – but above is an example of the wing cajoling and congratulating his forwards after a vital maul defence late on in the win over Connacht.

With four seasons of Super Rugby experience behind him and the knowledge of the game garnered from several superb coaches along the way, Lowe’s influence may prove important.

What is very clear already is that those who were excited about the addition of Lowe were right to be. Those who are still holding judgement are likely to find it difficult not to be impressed by the Kiwi.

It remains to be seen if Lowe is added to Leinster’s Champions Cup squad this month at the expense of Jamison Gibson-Park, but it is already clear that we will be seeing plenty more of the Lowe’s infectious smile this season.

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