LEINSTER fans have had enough reasons to curse Declan Kidney over the years, and if James Downey gets the better of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy in today’s Heineken Cup final they would be justified in hurling insults at the Ireland boss once again.
Almost exactly five years ago, the Northampton Saints centre was unemployed, having been released by Connacht. Aged 25, Downey was debating whether to give up the game and return to university, only to make a phone call to his former youth coach Kidney, then at Munster.
Kidney accepted Downey’s offer to train for free, and inadvertently re-ignited the 30-year-old’s passion for the game, and a career which has taken a circuitous route to the Millennium Stadium this afternoon.
Downey only played three times for Munster before accepting an offer to play for Calvisano in Italy and then on to Franklin’s Gardens, but there is now talk of him being offered a place on the plane to the World Cup. Indeed, Downey has been asked to sign the player registration forms ahead of the tournament, although he makes it clear that is far from a guarantee he will be in New Zealand. Yet there could be few better ways to impress Kidney than disrupting his current centre partnership on European club rugby’s grandest stage.
“To go from being unemployed to playing in the Heineken Cup final, I have to pinch myself,” smiles the Dubliner. “When I left Connacht and then on to Munster and Italy, I certainly wouldn’t have thought I would be in this position.
“I was released by Connacht and was unemployed for about a month, and I had to decide what to do — whether to keep banging my head against a wall or to leave rugby. I tried one last resort and called Declan and said I would train with Munster for free as I knew they were looking for a centre.
“I played a few games but got an offer from Italy, and it worked out from there. I was lucky a door opened at Northampton and it has worked out, though I know I still have to repay them this weekend.
“Did I think about giving up the game? Yes, although it’s a long time ago. I’m not too sure what I would have done, but I would probably have gone back to university and done sports management and then coaching.”
And that degree of perspective is what sets Downey apart from his Northampton team-mates. The likes of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Dylan Hartley are young and exuberant, constantly the centre of attention and enjoying life.
Downey is certainly well aware of his current good fortune, but admits he is happy to take a back-seat as the Northampton’s star acts get to work, although his centre partnership with Jon Clarke is as effective as any.
“Players like Courtney Lawes, Ashey or Fodes were all going to make it,” he explains. “Then you have people that work hard and put their head down — for some it pays off, and for some it doesn’t. I’m just lucky.
“And I don’t mind taking a back-seat. If everyone ran around like that (Ashton and Foden) there would be such a clash of egos it wouldn’t work. Sometimes you need people like myself and Clarkey to tell them to shut up and get on the wing, but that’s the way they are and the way the youth of today expresses themselves.
“You have to put them in their place now and again!”
That final comment was delivered with a broad smile as Foden stood behind him on Saints’ pre-final media day, but one man who Downey does have to put in his place is O’Driscoll. They spent two years at Leinster together and he doesn’t disguise his respect for the Ireland skipper.
“I don’t think there’s an advantage anymore as everyone has seen all the skills Brian has got by now,” he says. “When I was at Leinster Brian was away at the World Cup (in 2003), but when he got back I saw a lot of him in training and his quality was ridiculous. He has been the best centre in the world for the last few years, his partnership with Gordon is the best in Europe, so I’m looking forward to going up against them.”
The only question is whether it will be enough to win the final and get Downey a ticket to New Zealand. “As for Ireland, I can only concentrate on the final. I just have to do my job for Northampton and leave the selection headaches to Declan.”
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