“IF YOU’RE UNHAPPY DOING SOMETHING, WHY DO IT?”
On a bitterly cold February morning, James Lowe enters a popular cafe on Dublin’s southside. He spots me from across the room with a typically big smile and the 25-year-old affable Kiwi plants himself on the seat opposite mine and orders a coffee.
The former Chiefs star has been on the receiving end of many plaudits lately for his try-scoring exploits for Leinster and with him now being in Ireland’s capital city for over three months, the man from Nelson, a small city on New Zealand’s South Island, tries to sum up his experience thus far on the other side of the world.
“It’s been awesome so far,” Lowe said. “The weather hasn’t been as bad as they said it was going to be but in terms of the rugby, Leinster have been very welcoming. It’s probably a completely different environment to anything I’ve ever experienced.”
The “environment” which Lowe speaks of is the culture and make-up of Ireland’s eastern provincial side. To Lowe’s bemusement, almost everyone in the club is from Dublin or from other parts of the province. This is a far cry from the situation at the Chiefs where he recently described that only one player comes from Hamilton, New Zealand’s fourth largest city, where the 2012 and 2013 Super Rugby champions hail from.
“Everyone’s actually from Dublin, there’s only a handful of people who didn’t grow up within the Dublin catchment so in terms of that, there’s a real want to be here, there’s more of a connection because they’re from this region which is something that, in other teams, you have to look at other ways to find a way to connect yourself to the region.”
A sense of belonging and attachment to your passion, in this case, rugby, is one of Lowe’s key values and he believes that the sport is truly special in the way you are almost immediately adopted into a new family, something which is hugely important when you consider a 25-year-old has just left his loved ones in New Zealand to live in a different country on the other side of the globe.
Lowe stayed in Leinster and Ireland star Sean O’Brien’s apartment when he first arrived in Dublin in November but with the ‘Tullow Tank’ away in Ireland camp for the Autumn series, it was up to Josh van der Flier, sidelined through injury at the time, to show Lowe around Dublin and introduce him to his new teammates.
“Nah, he [O’Brien] was pretty much in Irish camp the whole time. Josh helped me quite a bit because he was injured. It was one of our weeks off so he was injured, he was in doing rehab and I met him through there and we went out for a beer one night with a whole load of other boys so I met a lot of them through Joshy.”
“It was a pretty easy transition, the funny thing about rugby is, you can move anywhere in the world and you already have 20 friends. You got 20 people with the same schedule as you, same things in common, so it’s actually a lot easier when you think about your partners and other people coming over – trying to get them into work so they can meet new people, get them playing sport or something so they can meet new people.”
Lowe is now firmly embedded within the Leinster rugby household and he has proven a highly popular figure amongst his teammates. His laid-back style, the almost constant smile on his face and his philosophy on life are infectious attributes. In fact, he pauses our conversation for a moment when he spots Ross Moloney and Ross Byrne sitting at another table across the room. He increases the volume of his speech so that his two Leinster colleagues can hear.
“We’re all pretty similar too except for those two over there!”
Such is Lowe’s ability to quickly immerse himself in the ribbing and joshing among his teammates, he has already been accused publicly by O’Brien of stealing lightbulbs and towels from the flanker’s apartment.
“That was a hell of an experience man [staying in O’Brien’s apartment]. He’s a good guy although he keeps throwing me under the bus in the media. This guy, I get there and I literally have to clean up his two-bedroom apartment to get my bag through the door. He has the cheek to say I steal all his towels and lightbulbs and stuff – I don’t know what has gotten into him, he’s a special human that one!”
When I raise the point that Andrew Porter labelled him an “oddball” in the media, Lowe quipped.
“Andrew Porter said I’m weird?! If Andrew Porter is calling anyone weird, he’s got to look at himself first! He is good craic, Ports, but he can’t be saying that haha!”
Joking aside, it’s refreshing to see someone so comfortable in their own skin, so often we see professional athletes in all sports, put a lot of attention and focus into how they are perceived off the pitch, for Lowe, that doesn’t interest him, he is happy being who he is, no matter what people think.
“I kind of just don’t care what people think to be fair. If you’re too worried about what other people are thinking then you won’t get to sleep at night. If you’re happy with yourself I guess, that’s all that matters. I just try to be nice to people…”
Being nice to people, it’s something that sounds so simple but in reality, is difficult to find in many walks of life these days but for Lowe, he sees it as something natural and probably down to his upbringing.
“Yeah, I think it’s just more because of my parents. My Dad is really quiet but he’s a big people pleaser, he hates letting people down and I think that’s part of where I got that from, he hates to let people down.
“As long as you understand, especially in a rugby environment, everyone’s there to help each other as well. It’s the same with the coaches, everyone’s there to help because they want to see everyone succeed. I guess you don’t want to resent someone in your position if they’re better than you are or if someone in your position needs help in certain ways on the field that you might be good at, you have to help them. You don’t want to see them keep on struggling and making the same mistakes, you know? If you can help…”
Lowe’s journey to this point has been nothing short of remarkable. A talented athlete in his teenage years, Lowe flourished in basketball, athletics and cricket, as well as rugby and there was a decision to be made when he reached that fork in the road of his adolescence.
“I always played every kind of sport, like athletics. I was in the fifth form, about 16 and I had to choose if I was going to pursue basketball. If I was going towards basketball or rugby pretty much. Cricket as well, I had to give up cricket at 15 or 16. I played at them all very competitively as a 15-year-old, like five days a week I played at two different practices after school. I always kind of knew I wanted to play rugby and it was the sport I was best at as well. New Zealand was good at it and there was a pathway as well.”
I mention to Lowe that 2014 must have been a pretty special year for him in terms of his rugby career, a year in which he made his Super Rugby debut for the Chiefs and his debut for the Maori All Blacks. However, although he agrees it was memorable, he looks back to the time he made his debut for provincial side, the Tasman Makos, or ‘Tassie’, in 2012 as a year that truly stands out.
“Oh yeah, for sure. To make my debut for both of those teams [Chiefs and Maori All Blacks] was massive but because I’m from a small town where our teams used to suck, Tassie. We used to always suck, man. So when we first started we were like literally all the rejects from other provinces.”
The Tasman Makos were formed after the amalgamation of two club sides, Nelson Bay and Marlborough and Lowe reveals that after a few early difficult years for the newly-formed club, success soon followed after the core values of the club were established.
“So Nelson Bay, which is where I’m from and Marlborough which is over the hill, like an hour and a half away, like we didn’t quite have enough good players from our two regions to compete at that level so we got pretty much the rejects from everywhere else that didn’t make the other teams. So they came throughout all of New Zealand, they came and they played at Tassie for a good few years and then they tried to kick us out in 2010, get us out of the competition but like there was a big petition and I guess the city really got behind it. I made my debut for them in 2012 I think off the top of my head. I see where we were then to where we are now, like we were literally bottom feeders. We only just really started getting, I guess, our core values right – trying to pick as many people from our region as we could.“
When you hear Lowe speak about the Tasman Makos, the sense of pride and deep connection with the club is all too clear and this is something which translates to life both on and off the pitch. Outside of rugby, Lowe’s primary interest is being happy and content with life, he doesn’t see the need to add any unnecessary stress if he can help it. He cites an example of Leinster and Ireland star Garry Ringrose undertaking university exams during Leinster’s hugely important clash against the Exeter Chiefs in the Champions Cup.
“A lot of the other boys here [Leinster] study and do things like that. But I guess I’ve been doing this for a while now and I kind of forget how young some of these guys are. Like, Jordan Larmour is like twenty and Ross Byrne and Ross Moloney they’re like 21/22 and like shit man, I’m turning 26 this year. So I guess I’ve kind of been where they are and I guess I’ve kind of set myself up – like, I’m in a half decent position now.
“I feel like I don’t need to study – everyone here studies, man, and they get so stressed and yeah, I know it’s good to make sure you set up for after rugby but I don’t know what I want to do after rugby yet so why would I go into study and be stressed out, pay money for something I don’t know that I want to do yet? There’s no point – you can still go out and I guess you’ve got to figure yourself out more than anything. All I know is there’s no way I’d be able to sit in an office, in front of a computer when I’m finished rugby.“
“A lot of the boys, like I remember Garry [Ringrose] playing Exeter at home in the Aviva, we played them two weeks in a row, two massive games – Exeter are a bloody awesome team – and he had his exams during it. So he literally had his exam a couple of days before our captain’s run, did our captain’s run and then did another exam at the Aviva and I was like ‘holy crap, you’re stressing me out Garry!’”
Although studying isn’t on Lowe’s mind right now, he isn’t oblivious to the fact that you need to have other business interests outside of rugby, in fact, he co-owns a boutique-esque toy shop back in Nelson with his brother which sells educational, non-toxic oak-based products. Such has been the success of the business, they have recently expanded the store into the unit next to theirs.
I briefly mention to Lowe my own change in career and he sums it up perfectly.
“At the end of the day, if you’re not happy doing something then why are you doing it?”
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask him whether he has any goals in mind with his time with Leinster, will he define success by the number of medals or trophies he gets to lift with the eastern province and in typical Lowe fashion, he responds:
“As long as I’m happy, man, it doesn’t really bother me. As long as I’m sound and can get to sleep at night without any stresses I’m pretty sweet. I mean, it’d be awesome to win, don’t get me wrong. Especially a Champions Cup, like we’re in a good position at the moment. It’d be awesome to keep kicking. But as long as you’re happy, like people, man – people are going to think what they think anyway about you. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. As long as you’re happy, you don’t need to win heaps of trophies.”
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