James Lowe’s trademark smile made its leave as he contemplated this week’s Guinness PRO14 final.
Nothing to do with disappointment, nerves or a ‘game face’. A recent arrival at the club – he is just six months in situ from New Zealand – it is thoughts of an impending departure that have prompted him to swap his usual bonhomie for a brooding visage.
If only temporarily.
“It is a very special group of men in that changing room and, unfortunately, one of Leinster’s best is going to leave us. So, the stars are aligned. This was his last game at the RDS and the next one will be his last game at the Aviva. Everything is to play for.”
No name is offered. It isn’t needed.
It may be that not every piece of the jigsaw is in place for Isa Nacewa’s farewell. Pulled at half-time last Saturday due to the knee that has caused him grief for months, it remains to be seen if he is fit enough to face the Scarlets in six days’ time before he retires and returns home.
“Everyone wants to be Isa,” said Lowe after Saturday’s semi-final defeat of Munster at the RDS.
“His name gets shouted every time he runs out on to that field. If you want to do it for anyone, you want to do it for him. He’s our culture at the moment, he’s our talisman. I mean, he’s got one leg at the moment and he still trains every week.”
A few minutes later and he went even further in his praise.
“He’s a god amongst men.”
Lowe himself is proving to be anything but a mere mortal. Since his arrival in November, the Kiwi has played 12 times, scored nine tries and stitched together the sort of spectacular highlight reel that most would fail to compile across a career.
That he had to sit out the Champions Cup final defeat of Racing 92 in Bilbao due to the trade laws that restrict teams to the use of three Antipodeans in any matchday squad seemed all the more unfair given his input two days ago.
Solid under the high ball, and displaying a defensive nous that was deemed suspect as he learned Leinster’s systems, he produced a moment of utter genius with the unorthodox offload that set Jack Conan up for an eight-minute try.
Look back at the photos of Leinster’s celebrations in Spain and there he is soaking it all up with the rest of them.
“I’ve still got a medal from it,” he reasoned when asked how it felt to be restricted to his suit for the biggest day of the season. “I’ve played in a few finals and never won one so I think maybe just don’t play me in the final, eh?”
He jokes about ‘Bloody Conor Murray’ giving him nightmares with his box kicks and Simon Zebo earning a pile of cash at Racing 92.
Lowe aside, Leinster haven’t managed to merge the pretty with the effective in their last two contests but he has been taken aback at the sheer bloody-mindedness of teammates who have already ticked Grand Slam and European boxes this term.
“Man, no team has ever done the double: won Europe and then won their (league) title.
“It’s something that we talked about but it just shows how mentally tough some of these guys are. Some of them are going to go through 240 minutes of finals footy. They are there to grind it out. We know what’s coming and we have the plan.”
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