James Lowe during an open training session at Longford RFC on Thursday. Tom Maher/INPHO
home away from home

'Although I’m not from the province and I wasn’t born here, I feel fully a part of it'

James Lowe looks ahead to a new season with Leinster, and explains his previous links with some new faces at the province.

ON A DULL afternoon in Longford, James Lowe is very much a man in demand. After completing a series of shuttle runs at one end of Longford RFC’s impressive astroturf pitch, he takes time to sign jerseys and pose for photographs with fans young and old who have been patiently lining up along the perimeter of the pitch.

He’s then stopped a couple of more times on his way into the nearby clubhouse before taking a seat to chat about the summer just gone and what lies ahead with Leinster and Ireland. During the course of our conversation a couple of nervous kids will inch towards the Leinster winger, before summoning up the courage to tap Lowe on the shoulder and push forward a jersey or autograph book to sign.

Lowe has been a hugely popular figure on these shores ever since trading his homeland for Ireland back in 2017. His summer endeavours against the All Blacks have only served to ramp things up another notch – more than one young fan is quick to tell Lowe they hauled themselves out of bed early to watch the Test series.

He’s grown into an essential part of Andy Farrell’s Test team, some well-documented defensive lapses during the 2021 Six Nations his only major setback so far. The right boot of Johnny Sexton is now the only foot in Irish rugby more important that Lowe’s left. This summer, he played the full 80 minutes in all three Tests against the All Blacks, his work off the ball and link-play on it a crucial part of Ireland’s attacking system. 

It’s been quite the journey. Shortly before Lowe entered the room, Leinster head coach Leo Cullen had recalled his first phone conversation with the former Chiefs player.

“I was trying to convince him that it would be a good time (to sign),” Cullen explained,  “because then in three years he would be eligible to play for Ireland, and I could hear him at the other end of the phone thinking ‘what is this guy talking about?’”

james-lowe-and-leo-cullen James Lowe and Leo Cullen in 2017. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Lowe nods his head as the story is repeated to him.

“I never in a million years would have thought that I would have got the opportunity to one, represent Ireland, and two, go back to New Zealand and win a Test series,” he says.

“(To) Come back here and people are still absolutely super ecstatic about it, super proud of what we were able to achieve. We were just there to do our job and I was a small cog in a finely tuned machine.”

While the tour represented a career highlight for all involved, Lowe’s personal connection added an extra layer of meaning.

“Obviously growing up in New Zealand every kid wanted to represent the All Blacks and I was the exact same,” he continues.

I played professionally in New Zealand for five years and was knocking on the door and the door wasn’t opening. I made a decision at 24 to leave and explore uncharted territory. I’d only left home for three or four years but I’d never really experienced life on the other side of the world. It was a good opportunity to leave the nest and challenge myself in a new environment without the safety net of family and friends… We landed on our feet, my wife and I. We’re absolutely stoked.

“I think the decision was the right one in the end, wasn’t it? Yeah it was (a huge decision). Obviously, the opportunity to play international rugby was there. The lure of that, the chance of coming to Leinster to join a team that – I mean the success speaks for itself. It was a very successful club before I came. I sat down with my parents and people I trusted, former coaches, mentors and I was, sure look, I think this opportunity is a really good one and everyone was like whatever decision you decide to make, you do it 100% and we’ll back you to the hills.

“You know, to go back to New Zealand, I gave out a few jerseys to people who I thought  deserved them because they helped me along my journey. Now we are coming back to Ireland to carry it on.”

For now, the Ireland stuff has been parked to one side. With the new United Rugby Championship season coming into view, Lowe is busy getting back up to speed with a Leinster squad who are entering a new campaign without a trophy to defend for the first time since he arrived in 2017.

irelands-james-lowe Lowe played the full 80 minutes in all three Tests against the All Blacks this summer.

There’s been a couple of notable outgoings – Devin Toner, Dan Leavy and Seán Cronin to name just a few – but Leinster have also been busy adding new faces to the group.

During Thursday’s open training session in Longford, former Chiefs and Lyon centre Charlie Ngatai could be seen running through some drills with his new teammates, while new contact skills coach Seán O’Brien and new attack coach Andrew Goodman were also busy getting to work with the squad. All three men have previously featured in Lowe’s rugby life.

The 30-year-old shared a dressing room with Ngatai during his Chiefs days. 

“He’s a legend of a bloke, a huge family man, four kids, a crazy household, but he’s a very, very good rugby player and I think he’ll be an awesome asset for us,” Lowe says.

“He’s a bit of an older head now, the game intrigues him, he’ll always question things and will analyse games in a very coaching sort of manner. A huge wealth of experience and knowledge in there, and physically he’s at the top of his game. I think in round one you’re going to see Charlie Ngatai light it up.”

Another former teammate, O’Brien, was a key figure during Lowe’s early weeks with Leinster, putting the newcomer up as the New Zealander found his feet in a new country. 

“Ah man, the Tullow tank man,” Lowe smiles.

“He’s still the same old Seánie. Because we’ve only just come back in, I just just had my first meeting where he actually stood up and spoke… He’s going to hopefully add a serious amount of edge to our physicality.

He’s still look like he can play – don’t tell him I said that… I gave him a jab and he’s ‘You know I can still drop you if I wanted to.’ He’s been a very good addition. He holds so much weight. I mean, it’s only a few years ago he was lighting it up on the world stage. So if he tells me to whack someone or I’m too soft, it’s probably true.

“When I was playing for the Māori All Blacks against the Lions (in 2017), he was like look, when you first come over here you can stay in my gaff for however long, whatever. I was like ‘Ah sweet, cool!’ So when I was chatting to our manager I said Seánie said I could stay at his gaff for a week, and I came here during the November Test series and he wasn’t even there. I saw him three or four times… In fairness, he’s got a heart of gold that man.”

O’Brien’s addition looks a key one for a squad who have acknowledged their tendency to come up short against some of the more physical opposition on the European circuit in recent years.  

Lowe is asked to expand on that word he used in relation to O’Brien’s new role, ‘edge’.

“Ah the dark arts man. Physicality was his game wasn’t it? He played the game straight up and down. I think there is a fair bit of dark arts that we can try and get better at. If we can do that, I think it will go a long way in terms of how we want to play the game.”

Lowe’s relationship with new attack coach Goodman – who has joined from the Crusaders – goes back even further.

Goody was my PE teacher, I would have been 16 at Nelson College. Him and his family are steeped in our hometown of Nelson. His last name in rugby circles carries a serious amount of weight. His dad was an absolute legend and then obviously he happened to be my schoolteacher. He happened to be my cricket coach, my rugby coach at school. I was fortunate to play with him. He was my captain in the Tassie for my first two years.

“He’s going to bring not too different an aspect of rugby as what Filipe (Contepomi) did. He’s very open and honest.

“He literally came into the room like, ‘Lads I know all of you know how to play rugby.’ He’s got Sexto (Johnny Sexton), he’s got Jammo (Jamison Gibson-Park), he’s got Garry (Ringrose), he’s got Robbie (Henshaw), he’s got all these players, Ross Byrne. Everyone knows what to do.

james-lowe Lowe's left boot has become a key weapon for both Leinster and Ireland. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“All he is there to do is implement a structure that everyone can play. He’s got zero ego, which is awesome. He’s a legend and I think he is going to transform this backline.”

For so much of last season in both the URC and Champions Cup, Leinster looked the team to beat. Losing two crucial games at the business end of the campaign doesn’t make them a bad team by any stretch, but it does place more pressure on the season ahead. 

Such are expectations at the province, ending a season without a trophy feels like a failure. Doing that twice on the bounce would almost represent a crisis. 

Those Champions Cup final and URC semi-final defeats still sting, but the group have also been energised by Ireland’s achievements in New Zealand. With new players and new coaches on board, things feel fresh ahead of the new campaign, which for Leinster kicks-off with a round one URC trip to play Zebre Parma on 17 September.

“I’m very, very fortunate,” Lowe adds.

“I’m playing with the likes… I could go through the whole team. There’s people I had huge admiration for (before I joined). There’s a lot of pride representing Leinster. Although I’m not from the province, I wasn’t born here, I feel fully a part of it and try to encourage young people coming through.

“Jesus, I got absolutely mauled out there (signing autographs). It was mayhem. That’s cool that through our success we can put smiles on people’s faces out in the community. If we can carry on our winning ways, I’m sure it won’t die down any time soon.”

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel