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'I'm not sure who else could have scored that try'

Jamison Gibson-Park is pushing hard to be fit, but can Leinster afford to leave James Lowe out of another Champions Cup final?

AFTER BEING FORCED to sit out last year’s Champions Cup final in Bilbao, it’s hard to fathom how Leinster can go into their St James’ Park showdown against Saracens without James Lowe in their team. 

The Kiwi winger has missed out on several big days since joining the province at the start of last season owing to the restrictive ‘non-European player’ ruling, but the defending champions can surely ill-afford to leave him out again on 11 May.

James Lowe scores his sides opening try Lowe scored Leinster's opening try against Toulouse. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Jamison Gibson-Park’s hamstring injury meant the door opened for Lowe against Toulouse and in his first European appearance since December, more than took his chance on the left wing.

Lowe’s first-half try, as he showed incredible power and dexterity to finish in the far corner after a superb team move, improved his prolific try-scoring record to 20 in 27 appearances for the province.

There was also a second score chalked off shortly after but Lowe’s overall contribution to the semi-final victory over the Top 14 leaders extended far beyond his try, with the 26-year-old bringing huge energy and endeavour to the occasion.

Nine breaks over 56 metres and five defenders beaten barely scratches the surface, with Lowe once again demonstrating his capacity to produce big moments on the big stage, but also cause the opposition defence untold problems.

See his quick restart in the first half, or the barnstorming carry shortly after the interval, when he broke through three separate tackles, making hard-earned yards for his side, fighting for each and every inch. 

While Adam Byrne is desperately unlucky to now miss the rest of the season having started each of Leinster’s previous four Champions Cup outings before last weekend and Dave Kearney also enjoying an excellent run of form, Lowe’s presence on the wing adds a whole new attacking dimension to Leo Cullen’s side.

And in a European final against a defence as well-drilled and doughty as Saracens’ rearguard system, Lowe could very well be the weapon Leinster need to make the difference in Newcastle in three weekends’ time.

“He’s such a handful, I’ve said it before,” John Fogarty says. “He is such a handful.

“The play leading up to his try was excellent from the team, but the finish was equally excellent. I’m not sure who else could have scored that try. He’s so much energy on that wing. He put his hand up for sure.”

Surely he has done more than that? 

Before Sunday, Lowe had endured a deeply frustrating couple of months having picked up a red card, and subsequent two-week ban, against Munster and then a shoulder niggle during the Six Nations. 

Leinster's James Lowe and Hugh O’Sullivan Lowe celebrates with Hugh O'Sullivan. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

With Byrne in excellent form and impressing in the pool outings against Bath, Toulouse and Wasps and Kearney also pushing his cause, Cullen and Stuart Lancaster had alternative options on the wing. They could leave Lowe out and use Scott Fardy and Gibson-Park instead.

But, as Sunday showed, Leinster can find a way to incorporate Lowe into their plans.

Fardy is, at this stage, undroppable given the other back row injuries and his versatility in covering a number of positions but academy scrum-half Hugh O’Sullivan has made excellent progress this season and came off the bench in the closing stages at the weekend for Luke McGrath.

Gibson-Park’s fitness has wider selection implications and the Kiwi nine is pushing hard to get back to full health for the remainder of the season, but Leinster have growing confidence in O’Sullivan’s ability as Luke McGrath’s deputy. 

“Hugh gives the players and coaches a lot of confidence,” Fogarty continued. “He’s a very together kid. He hasn’t huge minutes but the minutes he has played have been good. I thought he did a great job off the bench, and that gives you confidence.

How Jamison gets back, that puts us under pressure on selection but we’ll find out.

If Gibson-Park is fit and Fardy required, does that mean Lowe — despite his obvious X-Factor and match-winning ability — is going to miss out again? 

“James is important,” Fogarty insists. “He takes a shot. Saracens are such a good defensive team, they can put you under so much pressure without the ball. It’s very difficult to attack against a team like that. The likes of Jack Conan, using his footwork like he did against Toulouse, will become very important.

“And obviously someone like James could offer us a lot of energy on the wing. It will all be taken into consideration. We’ll see what the health of the squad is next week and make decisions after that.”

Gibson-Park’s quality and impact off the bench is undoubted but can Leinster really afford to leave Lowe out in favour of a reserve scrum-half? Sunday showed there is a way around omitting him.

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Ryan Bailey

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