ups and downs

'I've been fired, let go, hired. I've moved provinces, I've moved countries'

Former Munster centre James Downey is now working as a player manager with rugby agency Esportif.

JAMES DOWNEY HAS been there and done that.

During a 13-year professional playing career, he spent time with his native Leinster, Connacht, Munster, Calvisano in Italy, Northampton, Munster again, the Glasgow Warriors and finally Wasps. He earned his only cap for Ireland at the age of 32.

Downey encountered some of the highs of rugby and some of the lows.

Now, almost two years into a role as a player manager for rugby agency Esportif International, the 39-year-old is putting some of those experiences back into his new job.

“I’ve been fired, let go, hired,” says Downey. “I’ve moved provinces, I’ve moved countries. I’ve earned shockingly and then I’ve earned quite well. I’ve done all those broad strokes really.

james-downey Downey played for Ireland against Canada in 2013. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“I used to hate all that moving around when I was playing, changing clubs the whole time, but it stands to me now in my new career. I’ve got contacts across the board and I can speak to players on that level, I know what they’re going through.

“I know what it’s like being cut, I know what it’s like when you have a job, I know what it’s like when you can’t get a job, I know what it’s like trying to study and play, juggling everything.

“I’ve been injured, I’ve been fit. I think it’s good for players to have that sounding board, I can go and speak to them and give them advice. I’m loving what I’m doing.”

A big, powerful centre in his playing days, Downey is best known for his five-year spell with Northampton and his second stint with Rob Penney’s Munster just after. 

He retired from rugby in 2016 after a career that saw him take on challenges that he had never anticipated. Some players are lucky enough to be one-club or one-province men but that is far from the norm.

“It’s a business,” says Downey of rugby. “Sometimes it was my choice to move on and sometimes it wasn’t. That’s the nature of it.

“Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to stay at one club for my whole career but it’s not always feasible. It’s a scramble sometimes.”

Having come through Belvedere College, Downey played for Declan Kidney’s Ireland U19s but was overlooked for a Leinster academy spot.

james-downey-17102003 Downey in action for Leinster against Connacht in 2003. INPHO INPHO

He went on to shine for club side Clontarf, though, and belatedly earned a contract with his home province in 2003/04. Unfortunately, the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and David Quinlan blocked his route in midfield.

“What are you gonna do? You can stay if you want but ultimately you’re a rugby player and you want to play. To me, it was a no-brainer.”

Downey headed west and enjoyed two good seasons with Connacht before they moved him on and he was left without a contract at the age of 25. He offered himself to Munster.

“I rang up Declan and said I’d train with them for free. I knew they were looking for a centre. He got me in but every week there was a new centre coming in on trial and I was asking what the story with contracts was.”

Desperately trying to earn a deal, Downey was sleeping on team-mate John O’Sullivan’s couch at the time, while travelling up and down to Dublin to play with Clontarf. He made three senior appearances but never got the contract he craved.

“My agent came back with the opportunity in Calvisano and I went for it. I told Declan I was going to Italy and then it was like, ‘Oh no, we have a contract here for you.’

“If he’d said that two weeks earlier, I would have signed it but maybe I just needed that break from Ireland. It can be such a bubble. Your horizons can be opened up by going away. To get out and experience something different is massive.”

Downey excelled in Italy, playing in the Heineken Cup six times for Calvisano and grabbing the attention of Northampton boss Jim Mallinder ahead of the English club’s bid to bounce back up into the Premiership in the 2007/08 season.

The Dublin man stayed there for five years, helping Saints to a Challenge Cup title in 2009, the LV= Cup in 2010, and playing almost 150 times for the club.

brian-odriscoll-with-james-downey Downey playing against Leinster in the 2011 Heineken Cup final. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“I fitted in there, the timing was perfect. They needed a ball-carrying centre to hit it up and I fitted the mould. I loved my rugby there, I was playing with a smile on my face.”

There was, of course, the disappointment of losing the 2011 Heineken Cup final to Leinster. Leading 22-6 at half-time, the Saints looked set for the title but failed to score in the second half as Johnny Sexton led the Irish province’s revival for a 33-22 win.

“I remember coming home two weeks later and I thought things might be a bit quieter in Dublin by then,” says Downey with a laugh.

“I was out, my first night out, and we went to a well-known establishment on Harcourt Street and it was pretty much full of Leinster players. I’d know most of them obviously but I just thought, ‘You can’t go anywhere!’”

In 2012, Munster came calling with a good offer and Downey returned home, determined to play for Ireland. He fulfilled that ambition on the 2013 summer tour of North America, starting and playing the full 80 minutes in a win over Canada.

“There’s that unwritten rule that once you’re abroad, unless you’re doing something absolutely ridiculous, you’re not going to get picked.

“You’re getting to finals, playing consistently and putting your hand up, but that’s the way it was. That was half my decision when I left Northampton – I wanted to get cap. Coming to Munster was an unbelievable honour but I was hoping to tick the other boxes too.

“It was unbelievable to play for Ireland, it’s the pinnacle of anyone’s career. Maybe it’s a quiz question, those one-cap wonders, but I was delighted to play and get the win, to be part of the environment. I’m deeply honoured to have worn the green jersey.”

Downey was part of Penney’s Munster team that ultimately failed to adapt to a new style of play under the Kiwi. 

Having been signed by previous boss Tony McGahan, who favoured a more direct style that would have suited him, Downey admits to having initially been “a little bit confused” by the wide-wide 2-4-2 game plan that Penney brought in.

james-downey Downey played for Munster 44 times in his second stint with the province. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I was happy enough to back my ability and skills but it was such a big change. By the end of the two years, lads were starting to get used to the system but in Munster if you’re not winning, that patience maybe wasn’t there.

“In some games in Europe like against Harlequins, we reverted to type and were more direct. We needed a mix, if we had blended it in adding small layers each time.

“Having Donncha O’Callaghan on the wing, not always involved in things… lads were used to hitting loads of rucks and then they’re out on the wings waiting for the fifth phase.

“Look, ultimately, I enjoyed it under Rob, he’s a great fella and it was good times. I felt for him at the end.”

Penney left Munster after being offered only a one-year deal and Downey himself was also back on the move in 2014.

This was one of those transfers he didn’t want. Penney was the man to break the bad news to him over the phone.

“I had moved home from England thinking I would finish in four years, finish in Ireland. Best laid plans… I was playing every week for Munster and I found it very tough [when he was told there was no new contract for him].

“They said the numbers didn’t work, they couldn’t afford to keep me. It wasn’t too nice a conversation, I was pretty pissed off with it. I could have understood if I wasn’t playing but I was out there every week playing and it was a head-scratcher for me.

“In my mind, I had done my stint abroad and was moving home to finish up but, as I said, that’s the nature of the sport.”

First-choice with Munster through until the end of his two-year stay, during which he amassed 44 appearances and contributed brilliantly to big days like that 2013 Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Harlequins, Downey was in demand elsewhere.

james-downey-during-a-hail-shower Downey had good times and bad times in rugby. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Glasgow came calling but Downey didn’t fully click with then head coach Gregor Townsend and departed on loan to Wasps after eight months, then signed for the English club on a one-year deal. Nine more Premiership appearances for Wasps rounded out his busy career.

“It’s ups and downs,” says Downey of pro rugby. “The ups are those years when you get to finals and you’re winning.

“The downs are when you’re injured or you’ve been cut, when you go into June and still don’t have a contract. You’re at the crossroads then, considering giving up rugby. 

“There are many more highs than lows and it’s an unbelievable career if you can get a good run on it. But it takes its toll on you as well, especially when you’re finished.”

Downey had done a degree in Business Administration and Management at CIT when living in Cork during his time with Munster, then qualified as a financial advisor through LIA as he closed out his career, getting some work experience in those final years.

He initially took on roles in insurance, investment, and with a tech company – while also coaching back at ‘Tarf – but he quickly realised that sitting at a desk wasn’t for him.

“Some people are extremely happy to do that, each to their own, but I struggled with it mentally. In my head, it wasn’t the thing for me.”

Having been encouraged to go down the agency route while playing, Downey got in touch with former Leinster manager Dave McHugh, who runs athlete management firm Line Up Sports, and did some work with him before being linked to Ryan Constable, the founding director of Esportif.

As ever, timing was everything and Downey jumped at the chance to take up a position with the rugby agency. Since 2018, he’s been working with players around the country – negotiating contracts, sourcing new clubs, and mentoring them. 

“I was lucky enough to play professionally for 13, I’ve been playing since I was a kid, so to draw a line under all of that and forget about it, that would just have been a waste.”

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