Tag Archives: James Downey

The Exiled Irish

Roger Wilson and Neil Best are two Irish players abroad, pictured playing for Northampton here. Wilson will join Ulster next season, while Best is now at Worcester. (c) Henry Southgate.

Irish rugby is often accused of an aversion to unleashing talented young players into high-level competition. Watching Super Rugby, it’s hard not to notice the amount of youngsters starting matches. For example, the Brumbies’ starting team against the Highlanders last Saturday included only 6 players over the age of 24. Meanwhile, Munster’s starting line-up against Connacht featured 12 players over the age of 24, a marked difference.

The simple fact is that with Ireland having just four professional teams,  three of whom are Heineken Cup regulars, opportunities are extremely limited for young players. Moving abroad in search of a contract is not a traditionally popular route for Irish players. However, it is increasingly becoming a valid option for ambitious youngsters. In the English Championship (second tier) there are currently over 20 Irish players contracted, with another 15 in the Aviva Premiership.  There’s also a handful of Irish professionals plying their trade in Italy and France.

It can only be a good thing for Irish rugby that these guys are actually playing professional rugby rather than wasting their careers on the bench or in an academy. Irish players’ agents need to be more aware of the opportunities abroad. While it’s never easy to move away from home, these players can earn a good living and enjoy a satisfying career, possibly earning a move back to their home province somewhere down the line.

Geordan Murphy

Geordan Murphy is another who has excelled abroad, for the Leicester Tigers. (c) Vincent Cornelius.

For older players frustrated with a lack of action at their provinces, a move abroad can breathe fresh life into their careers. The big tax break given to Irish players retiring at home probably prevents more of these moves happening. Many are often happy to spend the final years of their career as squad players in order to ensure they can reclaim that valuable 40%. That’s very understandable too.

Over the next few weeks, The Touchline will be looking into this issue in more depth. It’s important that Irish-qualified players abroad are recognised, those who have moved away from home to better their careers saluted. The IRFU have recognised this potential new avenue for international players  by appointing Mark Blair to keep an eye out for Irish-qualified talent in Britain. It is hoped that less players will slip under the radar.

For now, we look at four players whose moves away from Ireland have had obvious benefits to their careers. These are guys who have taken the plunge and looked outside of Ireland. While there are several examples of that risk being unsuccessful, here are some who have been rewarded.


James Downey


Downey will join Munster next season. (c) Henry Southgate.

The physical inside centre is at a far later stage of his career than the three other players featured here. He’s a fine example of a player who struggled for first-team rugby in Ireland, took a risk by moving abroad and earned a move back to these shores. Downey’s career began at his native Leinster in 2003, but a lack of action resulted in a move to Connacht for the start of the 2004/05 season. Two frustrating campaigns followed before a brief stint with Munster in 2006.

Italian side Calvisano offered Downey a first-choice role and Heineken Cup rugby for the 06/07 season. Northampton were impressed with what they saw and signed him up for 07/08. That move has been hugely successful for the Dubliner, as he has become a key player for the Saints. He has won the European Challenge Cup and the LV= Cup during his five seasons in England, as well as a Churchill Cup with Ireland ‘A’. Munster have now signed Downey for next season, a well-earned move for a player unwilling to waste away on provincial benches at the start of his career.

Saints Profile: James Downey     Twitter: @jamesdowney23


Robin Copeland

The blindside flanker/second-row is a former Leinster U18, U19 and U20 cap. He also represented the Irish College and Club sides during his time with St. Mary’s RFC of Dublin. Despite his spectacular form at AIL level, Copeland was continually ignored by Leinster’s senior set-up, convincing him to accept an offer to join Plymouth Albion in the English Championship for the 2010/11 season. He had a big impact in Devon, scoring 5 tries in his twenty appearances.

That earned him a move to the Rotherham Titans, also in the Championship, at the start of this season and the dynamic Copeland has gone from strength to strength. The 24-year-old has contributed 11 tries already, mainly from the blindside. His brilliant form has now earned him a move the the Blues for next season. Standing 6’5″ and weighing around 110kg, Copeland is extremely mobile for his size. If he can continue to improve at the Blues next season we may be hearing a lot more of his name in the next few years.

Titans Profile: Robin Copeland    Twitter: @robocopey


Sean Dougall

Dougall is another joining Munster next season. (c) Neil Tunney.

Dougall is a current teammate of Copeland’s at the Titans, but like his back-row companion, he is moving away from Rotherham next season. Munster have swooped to sign the 22-year-old openside flanker. An Irish U18 and U19 international in the same age group as Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray, Dougall will be familiar with plenty of the Munster squad. Once with the Ulster Academy, Dougall moved to England in 2007 to join Leeds Carnegie in the Championship.

Two frustrating years of injury followed before a trial period with Rotherham gave him a fresh opportunity. Since officially joining the Titans in 2010, he has excelled at openside, even captaining the side on several occasions this season. At a time when there is regular media clamour for a ‘natural’ Irish openside to emerge, Dougall would appear to be of that breed. The back-row has signed a one-year deal with Munster so will have to set about proving himself quickly. He looks to have the hunger, fitness and intelligence to succeed.

Titans Profile: Sean Dougall     Twitter: @seandougall


Niall Morris

An U18, U19 and U20 Irish international, Morris was always marked out as a potential professional. Indeed, the talented fullback/winger signed for Leinster and made several promising Magners league appearances in the 2009/10 and 2010/11 seasons, even scoring a couple of tries. However, the depth of competition in the back-three at his home province meant Morris looked for a move elsewhere. The Leicester Tigers were more than happy to oblige and Morris joined them last summer.

The 23-year-old has made 10 starts, as well as 4 substitute appearances, so far this season, scoring 5 tries. It’s unlikely that Morris would’ve had similar opportunities at Leinster.  He looks like a ready-made replacement for Tigers’ captain Geordan Murphy whenever he decides to call time on his career. Morris has a deceptively languid style on the pitch, reminiscent of Clement Poitrenaud at his best. This exciting player looks like a good bet to return to Ireland at some stage in his career, at both provincial and international level.

Tigers Profile: Niall Morris


Photos courtesy: Henry Southgate, Neil Tunney, Vincent Cornelius.

Laulala To Join Munster Next Season

Laulala will join from the Cardiff Blues. (c) Ciac Images.

Following on from last week’s confirmation that James Downey will be joining the province next season, Munster have revealed the Casey Laulala has signed. The ex-All Black is out of contract with the Cardiff Blues at the end of this season and Munster have beaten off what Tony McGahan called a “very impressive chasing pack” to get their man. The centre has signed a two year deal.

The 29-year-old has two caps for New Zealand, the second of which came against Ireland back in 2006. The same year, Laulala scored the only try of the game as his Crusaders side beat the Hurricanes in the Super 14 final. The All Black joined the Blues in 2009 and has gone on the make 58 appearances for the Welsh region, scoring 14 tries.

Laulala will be expected to add explosive running to the Munster outside centre position. At his best, he is elusive, possesses quick feet in traffic and a good burst of pace. Munster will hope to draw the best from a player who will be 30 by the time next season rolls around. If truth be told, Laulala can blow hot and cold depending on his mood. McGahan will demand consistency from the New Zealander.

Red Army

Laulala will have to earn the respect of the Munster fans. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Laulala’s move will be disheartening for young Munster midfielders like Danny Barnes, Troy Smith and JJ Hanrahan. However, McGahan believes that Laulala will “act as a mentor to the emerging back talent we have in our squad”. His experience will of course be useful in this regard, but surely it would serve these young players better actually playing for their province.

Is Laulala really an upgrade on what Munster currently have? Lifeimi Mafi is an explosive, elusive runner at his best but struggles for consistency too. Laulala has plenty to prove at Munster but certainly has the ability to win over the Munster faithful. At over 100kg, he and Downey will beef up the size of the Munster midfield at a time when centres are looking bigger than ever. Munster fans will get an early chance to look at their new signing when the Blues visit Thomond Park for the PRO12 match on the 24th of this month.


Photo courtesy:  Ivan O’RiordanCiac Images.

Munster Seal Downey Deal

Downey on a typical surge. (c) Henry Southgate.

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.

Munster will hope to make the best of Downey's offloading game. (c) Henry Southgate.

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.