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Dublin: 13 °C Saturday 25 May, 2019
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Lowe can be Leinster's match-winner after a frustrating period in the shadows

The Kiwi winger is back in Leo Cullen’s team and will be hoping to make a big impact against Toulouse.

ALTHOUGH HIS INFECTIOUS personality and good humour remained unchanged, the second half of the season has ultimately been a deeply frustrating period for James Lowe. 

The Kiwi winger started the first four games of Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup pool campaign, scoring three tries, but for a number of reasons, Sunday’s semi-final showdown against Toulouse will be his first European involvement since early December.

James Lowe Lowe during Saturday's captain's run. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Since his arrival at the start of last season, Lowe has found himself at the centre of a much-talked about, oft-bemoaned, selection ruling which permits Leinster to pick only two of their ‘non-European’ players in the matchday 23.

After missing out on the Champions Cup final last season, Lowe’s performances at the start of this term — particularly his brace in round one against Wasps — made it hard to fathom how Leo Cullen could leave the free-wheeling winger out of his team again. 

But a red card, and subsequent two-week ban, for upending an airborne Andrew Conway during the fiery Christmas inter-pro against Munster meant Lowe missed the round five clash against Toulouse, and he is yet to return to his devastating best.

A shoulder niggle only added to the frustration and since his dismissal in Limerick, the 26-year-old has had to remain patient having made just three Pro14 appearances in 2019, again deemed surplus to requirement for the Ulster quarter-final last month. 

But with Jamison Gibson-Park picking up a hamstring injury against Glasgow last weekend, Cullen has been able to squeeze Lowe back into his starting XV without sacrificing the Kiwi scrum-half or Scott Fardy, who is named on the bench for Toulouse after Devin Toner’s return from injury. 

Of course, Gibson-Park’s unavailability, with Hugh O’Sullivan to deputise as the reserve nine, didn’t mean Lowe was an automatic choice on the left wing given the excellent recent form of both Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney. 

Byrne and Kearney were the starting wingers against Ulster and the former is unlucky to miss out completely having started Leinster’s last five Champions Cup games, getting his name on the score-sheet against the northern province, Toulouse and Bath, while Kearney scored a brace last week. 

But Lowe’s box-office brilliance, world-class finishing ability and penchant for producing moments of magic on the big stage makes his inclusion a no-brainer for the province, as they face into the stiffest assignment of their title defence. 

With his overall try-scoring record for Leinster standing at 19 in 26 appearances, Cullen hopes the Nelson native can help make the difference in what promises to be a thrilling contest against Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium. 

“Time will tell,” the Leinster head coach smiled. “James has got something extra about his game, a very dangerous attacker. He makes things happen when he’s on the ball and he’s big and physical when in possession too.

“It has been a bit of a frustrating period for him as well but he’s excited about the challenge, like us all, and has trained well.”

Leinsters James Lowe Lowe scored three tries during the pool stages. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Lowe has had to bide his time in recent months after such an eye-catching start to the season but now that he’s back in the team, will no doubt be keen to make his impact felt and get back to his destructive best in the final run-in, just as he did against Saracens last season.

Like Leinster, the effervescent winger enjoys playing at the Aviva, where he has produced match-winning displays against Munster and Bath already this season, although it’ll be up to Cullen’s forwards to provide the platform against a muscular Toulouse pack.

The Top 14 leaders, with a devastating backline of their own, pose a formidable threat to the home side and arrive in Dublin high on confidence after a strong run of form which has seen their resurgence under Ugo Mola gather further momentum. 

“Toulouse are a club we’ve respected so much for a long time and we’re in a privileged position to be at this level,” Cullen added.

“There was a period when Toulouse were the best team in Europe and some of the Irish teams had strong periods, but there was this worry in Ireland about whether we would be able to compete again because the perception was there was lots of money going into France and England.

We’ve had to work incredibly hard to try and stay at the level because we don’t have the same amount of resources and we’ve had to do things slightly differently.

Cullen confirmed that Andrew Porter suffered a ‘small’ injury setback during the week, hence Michael Bent’s inclusion as the replacement tighthead, while also maintaining Gibson-Park’s hamstring complaint is not serious and neither ‘are a million miles away’.

Leinster will hope those who are involved will shake off any lingering post-Six Nations rust and produce the collective performance required against their fellow four-time winners after concern over form and cohesion leading into this heavyweight European showdown.

“Obviously Leinster are unique,” Johnny Sexton says. “We have such disruption through the Six Nations and then you come out the back of that and it is hard to manage the squad in terms of building to the quarters and a home semi-final in the league.

“That Ulster game will stand to us, but we’ll find out on Sunday where we are at.”

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Ryan Bailey

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