Last call on All Black stuff

TOMÁS O’LEARY’s meteoric rise from Munster’s bench to a first international start against the All Blacks is certainly uplifting but it pales into comparison against the story of the man wearing the other number nine shirt tomorrow.

On July 1, the Highlanders scrum-half attended a disciplinary hearing at the NZRU headquarters in Wellington where he was offered the stark choice between alcohol and the All Blacks.

The issue had come to a head after Cowan was served with three separate drink-related disorderly charges in the previous three months after separate incidents in Dunedin and Invercargill.

Fined NZ$3,000 by the union, he was told in no uncertain terms that he would lose his central contract unless he knocked the alcohol on the head, which he has done thus far.

“They were tough times mate. I was in a dark place. I was at rock bottom and you can’t go any lower than rock bottom. I’ve managed to climb, I see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

“I reassessed my life and where I was going. Hindsight is a great thing but it’s probably fair to say I’m glad it happened and I’m benefiting now.”

Unlike his colleague from Cork, Jimmy Cowan is no novice at the highest level. His debut was made as far back as four years ago and he has pulled the strings at the base of his country’s scrum 17 times.

When last year’s Rugby World Cup swung around, he had won nine caps, but eight of them were as a replacement. Fourth choice at best at the time of the squad announcement, it was no surprise when he didn’t make the trip to France.

The World Cup had been Cowan’s stated ambition all year. The omission was hard to take but a bigger blow awaited him the following summer with that disciplinary hearing.

His journey back to favour was shorter than might have been expected as injuries to two of his rivals for the number nine jersey, Brendon Leonard and Andy Ellis, allowing him shoot up the queue.

He appreciates the role that luck — good for him, bad for the others — has played in returning him to the heights but his troubles have allowed him to mature and make the most of the opportunity it has handed him.

“I reassessed. I am at the age of 26 now and I haven’t really achieved a lot on the rugby field. I haven’t won a lot of titles, I’ve just been plodding along from A to B whereas now I’ve really got a chance to cement my spot in this side and just be the best I can, fit in on the international stage and I’m loving it at the moment. I’m just happy.”

With a knee injury preventing Leonard from travelling and Andy Ellis returning home with a rib injury suffered in last week’s game against Scotland, Piri Weepu is the only serious contender for Cowan’s spot on the current tour.

Alby Mathewson has been flown in as further back-up and the Wellington Hurricanes player may well start Tuesday’s game in Thomond Park. The mixing and matching serves to keep everyone on their toes.

“It’s funny how you use it as rivalry. I’m good mates with all of the half-backs really. We’re good friends off the field and on the field. We both work hard at our games. He pushes me along and I push him along.

“I don’t really see it as rivalry. I’ve been picked for this game but I don’t know if I’ll be picked for the following week. I’ve just got to concentrate on the job in hand which is this week. I can’t worry about others trying to take my position.

“I’ve got to do my preparation. I can’t worry about him or anyone else taking the number nine jersey. If I can play good rugby, then everything should take care of itself.”

Cowan’s dual with O’Leary should make for fascinating viewing. The Kiwi is 18 months older and a few kilos heavier, the Irishman an inch or so taller.

Cowan presents a multi-layered threat. He is physical, quick to spot any gaps around the ruck and possesses a clever kick and a nifty turn of pace.

“I always try to express myself when I play rugby. I’m sort of the hard-nosed type who goes out to play hard but also fair. My running game went away for a while. I’d a lot of pressure over where it had gone and I probably got caught up in that hype a bit, trying to run when it wasn’t on at times.

“Now I don’t let that pressure get to me. I just let the game flow. If it happens it happens and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’ve just got to read it as I see it. If the space is there I’ll go with it, otherwise I’ll just go with the team pattern.”

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