It’s not often that you’d find yourself sympathising with sports bodies. Vital and all as they may be, they operate on a calculated basis and are far removed from the blood and thunder of the pitch. Like that equally put-upon sector of sporting society, the referees, we tend to notice the ‘blazers’ only on those occasions when things go wrong.
European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) are no outliers in that sense. The lack of warmth in this sense has been a direct result of the political machinations that condemned the old ERC and Heineken Cup to history by the French and English power brokers. That and the unfounded promises of a more gilded future for the continental competitions.
In your own good time, folks, yeah?
Last May was an exception to all that. The decision to choose Bilbao as the venue for the 2018 Champions Cup final was a bold one.
The Basque country has held big rugby games before but this was the biggest. After years stuck on the merry-go-round of the same venues across Britain, Ireland and France, this was tantamount to a roller-coaster without a seat belt.
Plenty went right. Bilbao is an intoxicating city and the combination of pintxos and patxaran, the wonderful San Mames Stadium and the presence of two heavyweights, Leinster and Racing 92, in the final provided the potential for a decider that excited rugby die-hards and one to captivate a local audience drawn in by the curiosity value.
The reality was more sober. Nine penalties, no tries and a surfeit of grunt under grey skies that wept for far too long.
Leinster’s win was a significant consolation, of course, but among the disappointments that weekend was the absence until after the final whistle of James Lowe from the proceedings and the nagging sense that his spark was sorely missed.
The first sight of the Kiwi wing’s athleticism came when he jumped all over Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa in his exuberance after the final whistle.
Leinster’s dilemma in having to choose two from their three Antipodean players – Scott Fardy and Jamison Gibson-Park being the others – had deprived us of a man up there as the most exciting and talented rugby players we have seen.
The forecast for Newcastle tomorrow suggests that rain may again be a factor and the meeting of Leinster and Saracens may well produce another gargantuan slog, but the expected absence of Gibson-Park through injury, though unfortunate for the scrum-half, does at least suggest that we can salivate over the prospect of seeing Lowe in action.
EPCR won’t be the only ones grateful for that.
“Looking back to this fixture last year when we played (Saracens) in the quarters, Lowey was unbelievable in all areas of the game,” said Robbie Henshaw this week. “He scored a try and made a couple of line breaks in the first-half ... If we can get him the ball in the wide channels and get him a one-on-one he’s a massive threat. It’s great to have him back and firing on all cylinders.”
Lowe is exactly the type of player you want to see on club rugby’s biggest day. Last year’s final may have been engrossing for the purist, and perfectly in keeping with our knowledge of deciders as tight and tense affairs, but you need more than grunt to draw new fans in beyond the threshold to the parlour where they might stay a while.
It seems sacrilegious to lean on something so formulaic as statistics when praising a player so naturally gifted but Lowe is the most potent try scorer in the Ireland game since his arrival in December of 2017 with a rate of one try every 1.35 games. Keith Earls comes next on 1.46 this last two seasons, followed by Jacob Stockdale with a rate of 1.75.
It’s far more than just the numbers with this guy, though. Lowe isn’t huge but, at 6’ 1” and over 16 stone, he is well built and possesses enough strength, particularly leg and arm power, to bulldoze through opponents and the speed of foot to go around them too. It’s hard to envisage any other wing currently playing with the provinces scoring that try against Toulouse in the semi-final.
This is a guy you would empty your wallet for.
If that cut and thrust was the sum of his parts then Leinster could have few complaints but he has endeared himself to the locals with more than just his tries.
Lowe’s smile and chirpy demeanour off the pitch – in the dressing-room and with the media – have helped in making him a favourite and that team spirit was obvious in Bilbao as he celebrated twelve months ago.
There was no sulk, no strap and no-one wore a wider smile in the team photo afterwards than the guy in the suit with the long black hair.
“They won a European Cup without me and I’m bloody stoked for a day,” he said earlier this season. “Doesn’t bother me, I had a heck of a day in Bilbao man. I wish ... they should have given me a camera for that. It was the best day of my life.”
Tomorrow may trump that.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien