Wallaby head coach, Dave Rennie, can still see in his mind’s eye the irrepressible talent that is Leinster wing, James Lowe, fielding a ball deep inside his own 22 when playing for Rennie’s Waikato Chiefs against the Stormers in Cape Town a few years ago. One look at his partner-in-arms, the like-minded spirit that is Damian McKenzie, and the pair of troubadours were off and away, 95 metres to the Stormers’ try-line, running free.
Saracens know that Leinster have threats all over the field for Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final in Dublin but none is more potent, more explosive, more utterly captivating than Lowe.
“James is a hell of an athlete, powerful with a great fend and an ability to beat people as well as score tries,” said Rennie, who encountered Lowe during his five-year stint at the Chiefs before heading to Glasgow and then on to the Wallabies from where he will keep a distant eye on events at the Aviva Stadium.
“He was worthy of an All Black jersey but it was not to be and now Ireland are the lucky ones (Lowe qualifies on three-year residency grounds in November). James has the best and biggest left-foot in the business and can get you 60 metres on exit. You don’t get many in the back three who communicate as well as he does, very vocal. His work-rate is second-to-none and he is forever popping up behind the half-backs, looking for an opportunity. James is not one of those wings chained to the touchline. He has got a phenomenal skill-set and is a real handful. I know. I’ve had to coach against him. It’s not easy.”
Lowe, 28, has the knack of making it look exactly that with his surfer-dude outlook, all straggly black locks and beaming smile. His happy-go-lucky exterior has endured despite, or maybe because of, a significant spell of adversity. Lowe is also a tough lad, and has had to be, given that at the age of 14 he feared that he might never walk again after contracting rheumatoid arthritis. What began as an innocuous rash turned into a debilitating illness. In a rare interview earlier in the year, Lowe described to David Kelly in the Irish Independent just how mystifying as well as terrifying that three-year spell turned out to be.
“The uncertainty was the big thing,” said Lowe who lost 20kgs in a couple of weeks and had to endure times when he could neither walk to the toilet unaided nor use a knife and fork. “I’d be in remission for three months only to be back in bed for three months.”
Lowe, from working-class roots in Nelson on the south Island, is well aware of the fickleness of life and had little hesitation in heading to the well-remunerated pastures of Europe when signing a three-year deal with Leinster in 2017, a contract that has just been renewed. Lowe offers so much: his strike-rate, his dedication but especially his exuberance.
“James had all those challenging issues as a youngster but his personality is never anything but upbeat and infectious,” said Rennie. “It didn’t seem as if he would be able to ever get a chance to play professional sport but he has, and he has certainly made the most of it.”
Lowe’s skills are clear to see. But his character attributes also came into play when Leinster were weighing up their options. Fellow New Zealander, Isa Nacewa, proved a blue-chip acquisition in his 10 years at the province. Lowe is turning into a similarly valuable asset. Leinster use a colour-coded model to get the right blend in their squad.
“It (the model) divides your personality into four colours,” said Leinster coach, Stuart Lancaster. “It is not like you are one colour or the other. It is about different proportions. Red would be directed, yellow would be extrovert, green would be team player, blue would be detail-orientated. We would all be a different mixture of the four. Isa Nacewa had the perfect blend of all four which is why he was the captain. I was introduced to it in the England age-grade system way back in 2007-08. When I came to Leinster I was keen to use it to raise the awareness of players of their own personalities and of other players within the team. I think a lot Ireland players are quite introverted generally. James is an extrovert. It is fine to be detail-orientated but we need to show our emotion at times as well to get the best out of each other, to show people we care.”
There is little doubt of Lowe’s commitment to the Leinster cause or of his love for his adopted country where he has settled with his partner.
“James has been a great addition to the Leinster squad and has matured as a player over the last three years,” said former Ireland full-back and Leinster coach, Girvan Dempsey, who is now at Bath. “James can have a big influence against Saracens. He is really strong in contact and is always looking to find space, break tackles and keep the ball alive. The territory battle is always a big part of any match against Saracens so I’d imagine Leinster will use his left-footed kicking game to get out of their half and apply pressure. He is a key figure, definitely a glass-half-full kind of guy as well.”
Saracens' entire year depends on cutting off the Lowe flow of energy. On that rests so much.