Having spent precious little time at Munster in his first spell with the province six years ago, signing for them this summer barely represents a spiritual homecoming for James Downey.
Instead, after an extremely successful spell in England with Munster’s perennial rivals Northampton Saints, the Dubliner is keen to make the most of his second chance.
When Downey first arrived in the summer of 2006, the inside centre who learned the ropes at Leinster, had just been released by Connacht after two injury-troubled seasons and was looking to earn a contract with Declan Kidney’s newly-crowned European champions.
Trevor Halstead and Lifeimi Mafi were the midfield kings back then and, already disillusioned with the game, the frustrated Downey managed just three Magners League games partnering John Kelly before he found an escape route to Italy and a contract with Calvisano.
As it turned out, Downey’s time in Italy was also shortlived, although this time there was a positive outcome.
“Italy was a good time for me. I think I needed to find a love for the game again and I was disillusioned with it at the time but things have a way of working out and I was saved by going to Northampton.”
After one season in Italy, Downey headed to the English midlands and really found his rugby feet, helping the Saints reestablish themselves in the Premiership and on into Europe during a memorable five seasons at Franklin’s Gardens in a town and atmosphere he likens to the Munster hotbeds of Cork and Limerick.
“I really enjoyed Northampton, it was a great time and developed me a lot as a player.”
Downey’s home debut will come at Musgrave Park tonight in the pre-season friendly with Bristol and he finds himself the centre of attention as all eyes focus on his centre partnership with fellow new boy Casey Laulala, the former All Black signed from Cardiff Blues this summer.
“I’m extremely excited about it, and not just Casey, there are plenty of players there. I think, from my history of playing with George Pisi at Northampton, another islander, someone with great feet and great hands, it allows me to play my game and we can complement each other.“But there’s plenty of lads there that can step up. Earlsy there as well and with Danny Barnes and JJ Hanrahan, there’s a lot of young lads pushing hard on our heels as well. I’m looking forward to it.” “Rob’s come in now and hopefully I can change my game a little bit as well, add a little bit of deftness and subtlety to my game that I think I’m bringing as well,” he said.
A more rounded game might also persuade the Ireland management, not least national head coach Kidney, that Downey is worth a chance in a green jersey, although Downey is at pains to play down any international aspirations he might harbour.
“Look, first of all, I’ve got to try and establish myself here for Munster and whatever comes with that. It’s not me making the decision, all I can do is what I do here.”
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