Perpignan eye up Mafi as Downey returns to Munster

Perpignan will provide an exit route for Munster inside centre Lifeimi Mafi following the Irish province’s signing yesterday of James Downey from Northampton Saints.

Dubliner Downey’s long-touted transfer from the English Premiership side was confirmed yesterday by Munster, with whom he has signed a two-year deal to move back to the team he spent a season at in 2006-07. Downey, 30, will leave Northampton at the end of the season when his contract at Franklin’s Gardens expires after five years with the Saints.

The Irishman’s arrival will signal the exit of Tongan-born, former New Zealand U21 Mafi, with reports coming from France suggesting Perpignan will be the 2008 Heineken Cup winner’s next destination.

The Catalans, currently 11th in the French Top 14 and recently knocked out of the Amlin Challenge Cup, are preparing for next season and will need a replacement when French international midfield star Maxime Mermoz moves on as expected from Stade Aime Giral at the end of the domestic campaign.

USA Perpignan president Paul Goze is believed to have made contact with Mafi, 29, and also has Gloucester back rows Luke Narraway and Alasdair Strokosch in his sights while the club is also preparing for the departure of full-back Jerome Porical, who becomes a free agent at the end of the season and is tipped to join Biarritz.

Munster, meanwhile, are celebrating the capture of Downey, whose most recent appearance at Thomond Park saw him score a try for Northampton against the province in the first round of the Heineken Cup pool stages last November.

“James is a quality player who has been on our radar for some time,” said Munster director of rugby Tony McGahan.

“We’ve seen at first hand, on several occasions in recent times in the Heineken Cup exactly what he has to offer and believe his style and his attitude can only enhance our squad.”

Downey, a Churchill Cup winner with Ireland in 2009, came up through the Leinster ranks before switching to Connacht and then, two seasons later, to Munster. He joined Northampton at the start of the 2007-08 season and has made 135 appearances, scoring 12 tries.

Downey could be followed into Munster by another capped Irish international, with back row Rhys Ruddock repeatedly linked with a move south from Leinster at the end of the season.

“I can understand why they’re interested in him,” said Leinster coach Joe Schmidt. “We’d obviously be very disappointed to lose Rhys. He has captained the side seven or eight times and that’s a measure of the respect we have for him as a potential leader of the club.”

Speculation also persists wing Tommy Bowe will leave Ospreys and return to Ireland at the end of the current campaign. Although he has a year to run on his current contract and has recently stated he is happy with the Welsh region, Bowe would be welcome in any province.

... And Dubliner Murphy waits for Wallabies

By Brendan O’Brien

He was born in Dublin and won a Grand Slam with Eric Elwood’s Irish U20s five years ago but Ruaidhri Murphy spent 14 years in Australia and is determined to wade his way through any amount of red tape to represent the Wallabies.

Under IRB regulations, the former Leinster Academy prop must wait three years before being eligible to play for the green and gold, having left English side Exeter to join ACT Brumbies.

Murphy’s family owns a Perth-based mining business and he holds an Australian and Irish passport but, to be available for Wallabies selection, he or his parents must have been born in Australia, or lived there for the past three years.

The ARU are working to have that reviewed by the IRB and the man who played backup to Cian Healy and Jamie Hagan in 2007 has been pinpointed as a future Australian international by his Brumbies coach Jake White.

“I’ve got pretty high aspirations for myself and realistically at the end of the line I want to be a Wallaby, but it’s going to be 36 months before I’m available,” the Castleknock College graduate told the Canberra Times. “But I’ll take it. I have to establish myself first and it’s not frustrating because I’m staying here anyway.”

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