Munster have announced the signing of Northampton Saints’ centre James Downey for next season. The Ireland A cap has had previous spells with Munster (06/07), Connacht (04-06) and Leinster (02-04). After leaving Munster, Downey’s move to Italian side Calvisano gave him exposure to Heineken Cup rugby and he earned a switch to the Saints the following season.
That move has been a massive success as the Dublin-born centre has become an integral part of the set-up at Franklin’s Gardens. Despite his sustained excellence in the Premiership, Downey has never impressed enough to earn a senior Ireland cap. He has played for Ireland A (now the Wolfhounds) on three occasions, as well as the Irish Sevens team and the U19s international squad. The lack of a senior cap is certainly part of the motivation for Downey to return to Ireland.
The move makes sense from Munster’s point of view too. Since the Trevor Halstead days, Munster have lacked a centre who consistently gets over the gainline. Lifeimi Mafi can be brilliant at times, but he is a different type of centre completely and is frustratingly inconsistent. Downey is straight out of the Halstead mould. In fact, the two are very similar in physical dimensions. At 6′ 4″ and around 105kg, Downey is a hard man to stop when he gets on the ball. Added to that, his size and strength allow him to come up with some big hits.
Downey has evidently worked hard on his offloading game in recent years. More often than not, Downey will get over the gainline when he carries ball. If Munster can get him offloading out of the tackle regularly then it gives them a completely different option to what they have in the centre now. The thought of Keith Earls, Felix Jones, Simon Zebo and maybe even Tommy Bowe picking lines off Downey is an exciting one. Tony McGahan will work hard to ensure that he gets the best out of Downey in terms of keeping the ball alive.
The fact that Downey is Irish also makes sense from Munster’s point of view. With the IRFU rulings on how overseas players will be contracted to be imposed from the 2013/14 season, Munster will need to look for more native signings. Downey turning 31 next month does represent a slight risk for the province. His contract is only two years though, so even if injuries start to afflict Downey, Munster will be able to release him soon enough.
Another risk is the fact that Downey is being judged on his performances in a league that has clearly regressed in quality. The Aviva Premiership has only one side in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and is producing less and less top-class players for its own international side. Munster’s recent demolition of Northampton completed a double over the Saints in Pool 1. While Downey managed to score a try in the first match at Thomond Park, he was completely anonymous in the return fixture. His only major involvement was to throw the telegraphed pass for Simon Zebo’s intercept try.
Still, this is a calculated and worthwhile risk for Munster. Downey’s performances for the Saints in the past few seasons suggest that he will offer something different to the province. He will hope that a place in the Munster team will finally earn him some international recognition.
Photos courtesy: Henry Southgate.