On the strength of the weekend’s games, James Downey is Ireland’s best number 12 at the moment. This Mole has long rejected calls for Downey to be included in squads, never mind teams, but his displays over the last year have not only been impressive, they’ve shown improvement.
Downey has always been a big strong runner and at the weekend he varied his angles of attack well. He is well able to get his team over the gain line and also to off load in contact to trailing support.
Fergus McFadden looks like a first centre playing at second centre. McFadden has an impressive turn of pace but is quick to put his head down and run straight. They’re not bad attributes but ideally the second centre will open out the wide channels for the speed men. McFadden seems more suited to getting over the gain line in close, which positions Eoin O’Malley as the front runner for Leinster’s outside centre berth.
Danny Barnes seems better suited to the outside position and picked a good line off Conor Murray in the lead up to Dougie Howlett’s try. Darren Cave has suffered a bad run of injuries but has confirmed that he is a dedicated second centre. They’re unenviable shoes to fill and whoever takes over the 13 jersey for Leinster or Ireland is really keeping the jumper warm until more is known about the Surgery.
But back to Downey. Downey’s career path has been unconventional and acts as a good example of perseverance and application. It also shows the importance of starting matches. He began at Leinster where he spent three seasons. During his third season, Gordon D’Arcy was converted to a first centre and Downey moved to Connacht. He spent two seasons at Connacht before moving to Munster on a trial basis in autumn 2006. In a strange twist of fate, Connacht axed Downey after he’d been injured for three months, citing concerns over his durability. If it was puzzling at the time, it looks a very strange move now and questions must be asked about Connacht’s ability to help themselves. He was offered a contract at Munster but with Trevor Halstead ensconced at 12 for the Heineken Cup champions, he chose to go to Calvisano, where he played for a season before moving to Northampton.
A recent article about what needs to be done for Connacht concentrated on the idea that resources should be allocated by a central authority on an ad hoc basis. What would be far more beneficial for Connacht would be if players viewed the province as a viable route to the national team rather than as a stepping stone to Munster or Leinster. Kyle Tonetti’s arrival at the Sportsground will act as another interesting case study on the benefits of playing rugby, rather than just preparing for it. Tonetti is a big physical centre with a good range of skills. Now he needs an injury free run and to show the attitude that nails down a starting spot at a Heineken Cup team.
Fionn Carr’s move to Leinster may yet work out for him, but even with O’Driscoll and Horgan missing from the Leinster backline, he’s still not in the match day squad for the Heineken Cup. In a similar vein, Jamie Hagan had an uncomfortable few minutes against Marcus Horan and is behind Nathan White for the Leinster benching slot.
Players aren’t pawns to be moved around at the whims of a committee, they are actors on the stage. It’s better to be off-Broadway than serving coffee in Hollywood and the sooner more players realise this, the sooner Connacht will improve and Ireland will have a greater range of players to pick from. Downey’s ascent should be rewarded by national management and should be an instructive case study about game time.
As a footnote, Downey’s rise after his wandering years coincides with his time spent under Jim Mallinder at Northampton. Mallinder has been flagged as the front runner for the England job, based on his coaching ability rather than what his playing ability was. How is Ireland’s coaching stock developing and what role does Connacht have to play in that facet of the domestic game?