LOOKING out across the pristine pitch from the clubhouse end of the ground at Franklin’s Gardens as it basks in the balmy March sunshine, James Downey knows he’ll miss the place when he’s gone.
This is the pitch on which the Northampton Saints centre reignited a career that was rapidly in decline only five years ago; this is the club that gave him the opportunity to carve out the life he had always strived for as a professional rugby player.
Cast aside by Connacht and Munster in 2006 at the age of 25, the future looked bleak. A contract with Italian side Calvisano until the summer of ’07 paid the bills in the meantime, but Downey needed to make a decision. Was he doing enough to earn a living from the game?
“I was worried, very much so,” he says. “I went to Italy and I suppose I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I was looking at the possibility of a normal career because I knew I didn’t want to stay over there for the rest of my life.”
Being surplus to requirements at the provinces doesn’t bode well for the future when you’re a professional Irish rugby player. In only a handful of countries can a guy earn a reasonable wage from the sport.
Italy was one of those, but only just. It was on the bottom rung of the ladder, but Downey made the move on a road seldom travelled by Irishmen. Most saw it as the beginning of the end.
“I suppose it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind when you’re in Italy, because rugby wasn’t as big over there as it is now without any involvement in the Rabo (Direct Pro12).”
Downey spent the season in the north of Italy but he used it as a chance to take a step back from the Irish scene and assess his options.
Ultimately, he had been left with just one: to get his head down, work hard and bolt through the door of opportunity as soon as it opened.
“I enjoyed my time in Italy and, in a way, maybe it was what I needed at the time – a little bit of a break – because I got the appetite and desire to play the game back, but I was lucky to get out of there when I did.”
Making the lonely trek to Italy’s unglamorous Super 10 league wasn’t the dream Downey had in mind as he slugged it out with Clontarf on Saturday afternoons in the AIL as a 20-year-old.
Leinster were impressed by the bulky young centre and offered him a contract for the 2003/04 season, during which he made nine appearances in the Celtic League.
Two seasons at Connacht were to follow, but they opted not to renew Downey’s contract at the end of that term so he was left in limbo in the summer of 2006.
Munster, who had just been crowned European champions, were in need of cover at centre for the start of the 06/07 season and brought Downey in to provide it.
He played three Magners League games during a trial period for the province, who were then under the stewardship of Declan Kidney, but Downey’s spell in red was over by mid-September.
He was discarded and spent a month as an unemployed Irish rugby player who had been turned away by most of the rugby employers in Ireland.
To that end, the timing of the offer from Calvisano was ideal, but it was merely a stopgap. Northampton Saints came calling the following summer, a switch that would eventually open the door he had been searching for.
Saints are near the summit of English rugby now, but back then they had just been relegated to its second tier and Downey still had everything to prove to newly-appointed head coach Jim Mallinder.
But opportunity knocked at Franklin’s Gardens following a blow to a fellow Dubliner. Injury had forced ex-Leinster and Ireland centre Dave Quinlan into early retirement. The number 12 shirt at Northampton was now vacant.
“I guess I just got a bit of luck with Northampton,” Downey reflects. “Dave Quinlan getting injured kind of opened up that door for me.
“My head was a bit up in the clouds at the time about what I was going to do and what road I was going to go down. But I came here on a one-year contract not knowing what was going to happen, but things just worked out.
“I put in the hard work and I suppose I reaped the rewards then. I’d like to think things have worked out well for both parties. I’ve enjoyed playing for Northampton and I’m sure the club have benefited from me playing here as well.”
Northampton bulldozed their way through National League One on their way back to the Premiership with an unbeaten season during which Downey played 21 times.
Now coming to the end of his fifth and final season with the club, the Drumcondra native has picked up European Challenge Cup and LV Cup medals, played in a Heineken Cup final and is just shy of 150 Northampton appearances.
The manner in which Downey has rejuvenated his career at Northampton has been remarkable, but how does he account for it?
“I think it was a combination of a few things,” he explains. “Mainly I needed to put my head down and work harder. I wouldn’t say I had any real change of attitude or anything like that, because I did want it; I always wanted to do well.
“I just think I had an enormous bit of luck aswell. At the time I had this mentality that if I got an opportunity I’d take it with both hands and have no regrets. That was the key thing. I guess you don’t want to die not knowing, having all these ifs and buts hanging over you.
“I didn’t want to be that person in the pub telling people I could have done this or that. The second I got that opportunity I jumped on it and never really looked back.”
“Stop giving us the ball, Downey, you’re not a Munster player yet!”
That was the cry from one quick-witted Munster supporter in Milton Keynes in January after a Downey pass was intercepted by Simon Zebo, who went on to score the second of his three tries for Munster as they crushed Northampton in the Heineken Cup.
It was a rare slip-up from Downey, whose game has become characterised by consistently faultless displays, but it summed up a dismal evening for Saints as they shipped five tries in a 51-36 defeat.
A week later, following much speculation, Munster announced the signing of Downey on a two-year deal that begins this summer. Ditched in 2006, headhunted in 2012.
“I suppose things have gone full-circle for me alright,” he admits. “I’ve been at the bottom and I think you appreciate things a bit more when you’ve been at the bottom.
“I didn’t really think about it at the time, but looking back at it now, going from where I had been to playing in a Heineken Cup final in front of 80,000 people, and also to have Munster come after me having let me go before, obviously I take that as a compliment and proof that things have worked out well.”
Inside centre has been a problem position for Munster for a while and Downey has subsequently been linked with the province regularly for the last 18 months.
“They got in touch with my agent and the second you hear that a team like that are interested, it’s hard to turn down. There probably aren’t many other teams I would have left Northampton for.
“I suppose Munster haven’t set a 12 for a while and people mentioned me a few times. I think it mainly just came about from playing against them.
“I’d like to think my game has improved considerably since I was last there. I’ve played against Munster a number of times with Northampton and they got to see what I’m like then.
“I’m still desperate to win things and I’m really excited about going home. I’ll do everything I can to make Munster successful and I can’t wait to go back and play in the red jersey again.
“There’s a lot of history behind that jersey so you don’t get it easily. It means so much to so many people and I completely appreciate it. Once I have that jersey on I’ll be 110% behind it.”
At 6’4” and almost 17 stone, Downey is an enormous man for a centre. His physique is more akin to that of a second-row forward and he knows just how to use it to full effect in midfield.
Notorious for his tackling ability and for being difficult to bring down with the ball in hand, Downey is a powerful inside centre in the go-forward mould of Trevor Halstead, something Munster have missed since the South African’s departure in 2007.
When asked what he can add to Munster, Downey said: “They’ve possibly been a bit lateral as of recent times so maybe I can straighten things up a bit. With the signing of Casey (Laulala) as well, it might work out the way it does here with myself and George Pisi.
“They’re similar types of players so hopefully we can work off that and feed the lads in the back-three. It works for us here at Northampton with Chris Ashton and Ben Foden getting their hands on the ball so that’s something I think I can bring.
“I’ll bring everything I have defensively as well. People might have a certain opinion of me from when I was there before, but I’d like to try to change that and show them what I’m really capable of.”
Downey’s capture has divided opinion among Munster supporters. Many have welcomed the imminent arrival of a specialist inside centre, while others have questioned the decision to bring in a 31-year-old in favour of promoting some of the province’s younger talent.
“You can’t please everyone all the time but I can’t worry about that. All I can do is my best for the team and I’m satisfied for people to say whatever they want as long as the team is winning,” Downey says.
“The more people that are happy, the better, but contributing to a good brand of winning-rugby is all I care about.”
Downey admits that many of his biggest disappointments as a Northampton player have been inflicted by Munster.
The sides have met five times in the Heineken Cup in recent seasons and Downey has been involved on each occasion.
The first of those, in October 2009, was won by Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens, but Munster have since taken four victories in a row.
The one that hurts the most? Thomond Park last November, when Downey had scored a try to help Northampton into a 21-20 lead.
The clock had passed the 80-minute mark, Northampton were on the verge of a famous Thomond Park victory, but Munster had possession.
They went through 41 phases before Denis Leamy offloaded the ball to Ronan O’Gara, who was stood 35 metres from the Northampton posts. A drop goal attempt was Munster’s last chance and as soon as O’Gara’s right boot made contact with the ball, Downey got that sinking feeling.
“It wasn’t nice at all but fair play to him; not many players in the world could step up and do that. He’s one of the only ones who’d have the balls to do it.
“Just standing there watching it, it happened in slow motion. I knew it was there when he connected with it. We thought we had done enough but it was snatched away from us at the very last second. It was a fairly sickening feeling afterwards.
“Thomond Park is an extremely tough place to go and play, so to come so close and let it slip away was absolutely gut-wrenching. There really is a lot to be said for that 16th man there because they really get on your back.”
It was the second time in the space of just a few months that Downey had been on the end of bitter disappointment at the hands of an Irish province. Last May, Northampton were 22-6 up against Leinster at half-time in the Heineken Cup final in Cardiff. However, they failed to score in the second-half and lost 33-22.
Downey says: “It took a good while to get over that actually. Being from Dublin and living there in the off-season, it was a pretty surreal feeling to have family and friends supporting the opposition.
“Leinster were all over us in that second-half and I think all we needed was one score to stop the flow. But to say I was extremely disappointed would be an understatement. You can’t really put into words how bad you feel after losing a game like that, especially in that manner.”
Heineken Cup success eluded Downey at Northampton but winning a Premiership medal would be a fitting way to bring his time in England to a conclusion.
With four regular season games remaining they’re on track to make the playoffs, but a difficult away semi-final against Harlequins or Saracens is likely to be their reward.
“Going out on a high is what you want,” says Downey. “I want to end my five years here with a major trophy. Going so close in the Heineken Cup last year was disappointing, but if we could win a Premiership it would be brilliant, especially to give something back to the community. Everyone here has been really good to me personally.”
At 31, Downey has yet to be capped by Ireland. The highlight of his international career so far was his involvement with the Churchill Cup-winning ‘A’ squad in 2009.
Munster have struggled to find an inside centre, but Ireland’s difficulties in that position are severe. The Ireland number 12 jersey has been served well by Gordon D’Arcy, but as was evident from his recent Six Nations displays, D’Arcy’s days in green are numbered.
Downey may or may not be a solution, but having impressed consistently in the position for one of Europe’s top clubs for the past two seasons, the least he deserves is an opportunity to show whether he’s up to the standard.
“I’d still like to think I could do a job there but, as I’ve said before, that’s up to Declan,” Downey explains. “All I can do is keep knocking on the door by continuing to play regularly at as high a level as I can.
“Hopefully then they’ll take notice. As long as I’m playing as well as I can I’ll have no regrets. It would be amazing to play for my country – there’s no greater honour – but that’s in other people’s hands.”
Moving to back to Munster can only serve to aid his claims for international recognition.
Downey: “I hope so. Every player wants to represent their country. It’s what you dream of doing when you take up the sport as a young lad. Going back to play at home, maybe that’ll help my cause but it might not either.
“It won’t be my decision to make. I’m going back to play for Munster, my priority will be to do everything in my ability to bring Munster as far as I can and if that leads to something more, brilliant.”
Ireland’s three-test summer series in New Zealand is an ideal opportunity for Declan Kidney to see what the likes of Downey have to offer at international level.
Between finding a place to live in Cork and jetting off for a holiday, Downey already has a busy summer lined up. But if the long-awaited call comes from Kidney, he’ll gladly put all other plans on hold.
“Of course I would. I definitely wouldn’t say no to that.”