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How James Lowe will be last of his kind when his Ireland debut arrives

 

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Staying around: James Lowe has penned a new three-year deal with Leinster

Staying around: James Lowe has penned a new three-year deal with Leinster

�INPHO/Ryan Hiscott

Steve Hansen

Steve Hansen

AFP/Getty Images

Staying around: James Lowe has penned a new three-year deal with Leinster

The last of a soon-to-be extinct breed, James Lowe will provide a major boost to Ireland boss Andy Farrell's attacking options in only four months' time.

News of the winger's freshly inked three-year deal with Leinster confirms that the former Waikato Chiefs flyer will qualify for Ireland via the now-changed 36-month residency rule come this November, his latest contract taking him all the way up to the 2023 World Cup in France by which stage he'll still only be 31-years-old.

While the influence of Covid-19 upon the prospects of seeing the autumn internationals of 2020 going ahead as planned remains unclear - and Lowe's qualification would come too late for any proposed conclusion to the as yet unfinished Six Nations in October - the thought of the green-clad Kiwi's beaming smile lighting up the Aviva Stadium against the likes of Japan, South Africa and Australia as soon as November is enough to lift the mood of rugby-starved supporters. Or most of them, at least.

For Lowe's presumed ascension to the Test ranks will be bringing down a curtain on one of Irish Rugby's most fiercely debated chapters, one that in a generation's time could well be looked back on with some bemusement.

While the notion of residency qualification was nothing new during the Joe Schmidt years - Ulster European Cup winner Andy Ward made his Test debut all the way back in 1998, after all - the methodical nature of recruitment by leading unions over the past decade ensured that each freshly-minted, 36-month Irishman fanned the flames anew.

From Ulster's Jared Payne being described by George Hook as a second-rate foreign player to the somewhat farcical sight of then World Rugby vice-president Agustin Pichot taking to Twitter to suggest Devin Toner should be looking for answers from World Rugby after Schmidt selected Jean Kleyn for the World Cup at the Meathman's expense only weeks after the South African became eligible to wear green of a different hue, the arguments across entrenched battlelines have often been far from edifying; genuine debate too often replaced by sound bites, too often criticism levelled at the player rather than at a rule clearly in need of modification.

Whether it was bonafide Test-level regulars like CJ Stander and Bundee Aki or those that filled holes in the squad short-term like Nathan White and Rodney Ah You, if there was a presser at Carton House ahead of a debut for a player who once grew up dreaming of being a Springbok, an All Black or Wallaby, you could bet your bottom dollar that Schmidt would be asked the same old questions. And give the same old answers.

No one was safe... not even, for some reason, those like Rob Herring and Sean Reidy, players who qualified through family ties.

Had the law not been altered back in May 2017, the change from three to five years coming into force on December 31, 2020, then Lowe would have been one of the more interesting cases.

Free-scoring to the tune of 27 tries in 43 starts for Leinster, where he has won a Champions Cup and two Guinness PRO14 titles, often thrilling to watch and even good for a quote, there's little reason to cause a moment's hesitation when it comes to the 27-year-old. He did, though, once describe the rule that will see him cleared for international action as "stupid".

Lowe was so close to being capped by Steve Hansen as a 23-year-old that he's on record stating that only an ill-timed shoulder surgery stopped him being called up for duty against Samoa back in 2015.

"I got to a stage in my career where I was down to play a Test match against Samoa in Samoa but I had to get shoulder surgery," he said previously.

"So instead of me going, George Moala went over and he made his Test debut. When I think about it like that, like if I hadn't hurt my shoulder…

"It was pretty bad, I rehabbed it for six weeks and got back and was able to play, but I even met with the All Blacks coaches and they were like, 'We don't want to play you in your Test debut when you're not at 100%. And you don't want to do that either'."

Under such circumstances, it would be even more outlandish than usual to claim Ireland was ever more than second choice, a reality that would have had vultures circling even now, pre-emptively picking apart Farrell's presumed selection.

Instead, when Lowe first pulls on the green jersey, he will do so as the last of his kind, fellow imports from the summer of 2017 like Munster's Gerbrandt Grobler and Ulster's Schalk van der Merwe out of Ireland and out of professional rugby respectively.

Others may belatedly follow him across the line - the likes of Jamison Gibson-Park, Rhys Marshall and Jarrad Butler among those who at present seem too far behind indigenous options in the pecking order - but Lowe will go down as the last player to arrive in Ireland already earmarked as a Test player with a 1,095-day countdown clock hovering above his head. He'll run out at the Aviva already an anachronism in the present day.

Those who'll miss the noise needn't despair, though... international rugby's first five-year residency player could be with us as soon as 2023.

Belfast Telegraph