Leinster and Ireland wing James Lowe qualified for Ireland under the three-year residency rule
‘Hybrid’ players are rugby’s must-have accessory this autumn, according to Eddie Jones at least, but in James Lowe, Ireland appear to already have one ready to be plucked off the shelf.
On his debut in the victory over Wales last Friday, Lowe was deployed in a remarkable range of positions, popping up everywhere from the front of an Ireland line-out, to first receiver, breakdown jackler and as a “bowling ball” attacking threat close to a five-metre scrum.
Hybrid players – ones who are equally at home in the forwards as the backs – are usually discussed as being most effective in the final quarter of games, when there is more space or if the split on the bench is such that it requires some players to be able to double up.
Lowe’s physique – 6ft 2ins and 15st 13lbs – and skill set, however, has prompted Ireland head coach Andy Farrell to use him across the field in a bid to get him involved in the game as quickly and as effectively as possible.
The contrast with how England use Jonny May, his opposite number at Twickenham on Saturday, not only offers a case study into the extent of how much the wing position is changing but also into how Ireland are evolving their attacking game under Farrell.
“James Lowe has an X-factor as we have seen with Leinster” says Chris Ashton, the Harlequins wing who scored 20 tries in 44 caps for England. “He can beat people, he is strong, he is powerful and he can finish from anywhere. That is a little bit different. You don’t need to rely on other people as much. As long as you get him the ball, you can come up with something and create something to give the whole team energy.
"It's a very proud moment, that's for sure. It means the world." 👊 💚
An emotional @JamesLowe_03 reflects on his Ireland debut as Andy Farrell's side opened the #GuinnessSeries with a win ⤵️#ShoulderToShoulder #AutumnNationsCup #IREvWAL pic.twitter.com/HxoAJpHjIg
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) November 13, 2020
“Ireland, when they get those opportunities, will look to use him at the right time. Bringing him off his wing to come and catch the ball at first receiver on a scrum is inventive and that is the way you need to use him.
“Last week we also saw him coming off a five-metre scrum as a bowling ball to try to get them over the line.
"I am sure Andy Farrell will be planning it that way and a big part of that will be in the first 20 minutes of the game to get him going.”
Ashton, who will be providing analysis on Channel 4’s live coverage from Twickenham, insists May’s importance to England’s attacking game is critical – he has scored 29 tries in 58 caps – but says how he is used is “poles apart” from Lowe.
“Jonny is probably one of the very few knocking around at the moment who is just an out-and-out winger,” adds Ashton. “His talent is on wing, and he is fast and he will finish. He is one of the best in the world and has got better and better under Eddie.
Jonny May is 'definitely England's No 1 wing' according to Chris Ashton
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“He doesn’t get many opportunities but that is probably something you have to settle for when you are in the England team. Understand that the game plan is the way it is and the opportunities are going to be few but when they come you have to take them.
“You want to try to find him space on the second or third phase off a line-out to beat people and find a gap.
"In phase play the difference would be Ireland will be trying to get James off his wing to hit a hole in or outside 10, whereas Jonny, because of the England game plan, the majority of the time will stay on his wing.
“A lot of his tries are from kick-chase, or little kicks through, or turn-over ball, or a set lineout that will be run for the first three phases and he knows he will get the ball on the second or third phase. Those are his chances, they are as much as you are going to get with this England team. He has been taking those opportunities really well and he is definitely England’s No 1 winger.”
How England will look to nullify Lowe’s attacking threat and attempt to expose him positionally and test his defence should also be an intriguing subplot to the contest, with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill likely to be on alert when he stands at first receiver.
“A lot of the kicking will come from Ben Youngs just to take any time off [Lowe],” adds Ashton. You don’t want to kick loosely to him to allow him to counter-attack. In defence, England will be up, pressurising and especially the wingers. They stay high on the outside so when the (opposition) winger does get the ball he has got a metre to work in.
“So Lowe is going to have to work hard to find space and go searching for it. He is probably not used to having to do that with Leinster because they always get front-foot ball and he doesn’t have to go searching. But Andy Farrell will know that and he will be telling him to go off and find it. When he finds that tired forward, that will be his opportunity.”
England v Ireland is live on Channel 4 on Saturday from 2.15pm (kick-off 3pm)