Coaches and team-mates past and present tell us about the Leinster winger’s route to Test rugby
The making of Ireland wing James Lowe
Back in 2017, James Lowe talked to Rugby World about being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when he was 14. The Kiwi teenager went from being extremely active to “pretty much bedridden when I was at my worst”.
Finding the right medication allowed him to not only play sport again but go on to have a career as a professional rugby player. And the Autumn Nations Cup marked the start of his international career with Ireland.
He qualified on residency last November, having left New Zealand’s Chiefs to join Leinster in 2017, and marked his first Test against Wales with a try. Now he will be hoping to add to his scoring tally as part of Ireland’s Six Nations squad.
Here we talk to those who have known Lowe, now 28, at different points in his life to discover more about him and his rugby journey…
Peter Grigg taught Lowe PE at Nelson College and also coached him in the school’s first XV from 2008 to 2010
“It was obvious he had talent as he was first in the team as a young fella. Boys don’t normally spend three years in the first XV, so you could see straightaway there was a lot of potential there. He was a very good athlete – he played basketball and cricket as well and also did athletics – and you could see he was a talented young man. His pace, strength, power off the mark and ability to read the game stood out.
“The first year I coached him, in 2008, he missed a lot of the season (after being diagnosed with juvenile arthritis). That was a tough year for him, but the character of the young man means I wasn’t surprised that he was able to overcome adversity. He’s a winner.
“He played a bit at centre for us but mainly full-back. In a quadrangular tournament up in Whanganui in 2010, I recall him receiving a kick at full-back with the other 29 players in front of him and going through everyone pretty much untouched to score a try. Outstanding.
“In school, he was very friendly, well respected by his peers and a great kid. He was well known for breaking the school rules on wearing socks with sandals but he always got away with that, teachers never pulled him up on it!
“He’s a loyal Nelson College man. He always pops in and has a word with the first XV boys, watches games. He’s very supportive to the school. Nelson College has had a lot of All Blacks and one other Irish international, Jared Payne.”
After coaching Lowe at Nelson College, Andrew Goodman played alongside him at Tasman Mako in the early 2010s
“I had James in the U14s team in my first year coaching at Nelson College, then coached him at first XV level a bit. He had an amazing skill-set, size and speed, from a young age. He had lots of energy and has been like that ever since I’ve known him. He’d always come to training with a smile on his face.
“It was tough for him being so active and then being limited in what he could do at the stage he was diagnosed with arthritis. To his credit he came back and worked really hard to get back his size and conditioning that he’d lost.
“Later I played against him in the local club competition – him for Waimea Old Boys, me for Nelson RFC. I remember him scoring a try against us at Trafalgar Park and getting pretty boisterous!
“We were in the same group at Tasman for a couple of seasons before I went to Leinster, then I came back in a coaching role at Tasman and he was in that group as well. He turned up every day to get better. We had guys from outside the region who could see the passion he had for the jersey and what it meant to him to play for the jersey, so there was a lot of respect for him. He still keeps a close eye on Tasman now.
“When he signed for Leinster I got in contact with him to say what an amazing club it is and what an amazing place Dublin is, how good the set-up is there. I knew he’d go over and thrive. He brings something different with the way he plays and his ability to beat defenders.
“He deserves to be on the international stage and it’s awesome to see him go on to the next level.”
Tom Coventry was part of the coaching set-up at the Chiefs, where Lowe spent four years before joining Leinster
“I watched James play as a schoolboy. He played on the left wing and had this massive left foot so could do long raking punts out of the 22. We (Chiefs coaches) watched him play for Tasman, where he was on one wing and Bryce Heem was on the other.
“We had conversations with the coaches, Kieran Keane and Leon MacDonald, about the two wings and they both gave different answers – Leon in favour of James and Kieran for Bryce – so they both ended up at the Chiefs!
“James really caught the eye on the left edge of the field; he was pretty exciting with ball in hand, had a great sidestep and nice shimmy, stayed well away from the touchline and managed to link up with inside support really well.
“We had a really positive mindset of attacking out of our own half; James was a big part of that, he fitted into that well. It was quite unusual for us to exit out of our own half as our policy was to look to counter-attack first, but if nothing was on we’d rely on James to use his foot to kick us out of trouble. He could kick or beat people with his footwork.
“The try I remember was against the Crusaders in Christchurch (in 2014). It was a close game and he played on the right wing that day. He intercepted the ball on the 22 and ran 60-70 metres down the touchline to score in the corner and put the game out of reach. That was one of his early games for us and I remember cheering him home.
“We based a lot of our recruitment on putting people in the team who added value not just as a rugby player but as a person. He was a pretty confident, chirpy member of the team. He had a gregarious attitude and personality that’s easy to get along with. A good character and good fun.
“He used to share a flat with Matt Symons and the landlord once told them they had to mow the lawn, so my uncle went to cut the grass for them. I remember him coming back and saying, ‘It was like a jungle’. The grass was about a metre high – they’d never mown it since they’d been there!
“We would have liked to have kept him at the Chiefs but there’s something that draws young Kiwi boys to the northern hemisphere; the salaries you can earn are a big part of it but it’s also just the overseas experience. Some guys go later in their career after seeing if they can make the All Blacks; James chose to go early. He was in the frame, I’m not saying he was guaranteed to make the All Blacks but he was playing good footy. We all wished him well when he left and it has certainly worked out for him.”
Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton has played alongside, and captained, Lowe at Leinster for the past three years
“I’d watched a lot of Super Rugby and seen him for the Chiefs, then when you know you’re signing someone it’s like player cam: rather than watch the game, you look for the guy you’ve signed.
“I thought he was a very impressive player then and he’s been even more impressive since he got here. The energy he brings and his enthusiasm for the game is infectious. He’s been a big part of the success at Leinster.
“Sometimes when you sign players from overseas it can be hard to get a really good player and a really good person at the same time, and it’s arguably more important to bring in the right person who may be a lesser player. We’re very lucky as he’s brilliant in the environment and a brilliant player.
“He came from a strong environment with the Chiefs and that’s good for us as we’re able to ask him what he would do with the Chiefs, from a cultural point of view or a rugby point of view. Leinster are getting that intellectual property.
“There are the strengths everyone sees – he’s a very good finisher, a very good ball-carrier. People might not see his work-rate off the ball, his energy, his communication. He’ll run in from the side of the pitch to congratulate the props on a good scrum or winning a penalty and is one of those guys who gives you great snippets of information.
“He’s very popular and is able to hang around with the young guys as well as the old guys, as opposed to me who is firmly in the old brigade. If I tried to talk to the academy guys, they’d be thinking, ‘I have nothing in common with this guy’! James brings the younger and older groups together. He treats everyone the same and that’s what we try to do at Leinster and with Ireland now under Andy Farrell. Everyone gets a voice.
“He is passionate about Leinster and he won’t take it (getting capped by Ireland) lightly, he realises the privilege afforded and will definitely make the most of it.
“He takes rugby seriously but it’s not the be-all and end-all and he lets that shine through. I could learn from him on that!”
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 edition 0f Rugby World magazine.
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