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Sunday 26 January 2020

Lowe days behind James

Leinster star on his battle with arthritis

Leinster star James Lowe was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when he was 14. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster star James Lowe was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when he was 14. Photo: Sportsfile

Maybe there's a reason why James Lowe starts suddenly when you mention the word that nobody dares mention within Leinster Rugby HQ. Invincible.

Some of their most enthusiastic supporters, and not an insignificant cohort of neutrals, are beginning to feel as if the Irish side can sweep all before them this season and remain unbeaten, continuing tomorrow with an expected romp against disinterested Lyon in the Champions Cup at the RDS.

But Lowe scoffs at the notion.

"First I've heard of it!" he says with a smile, one of many that will be flashed in the next hour, accompanied by a laugh.

"We don't want to lose but that's not the end goal," he says, more straight-laced now. "We want to win two trophies. And if we lose two games along the way, well . . . That's rugby. That's life."

And he should know.

Kiwi-born Lowe (27) will this year become eligible under the controversial residency rule to play for Ireland, having once dreamed of being an All Black.

But there was a time when all he desperately wanted was to complete the gentle walk uphill to school without collapsing in a heap.

To this day, he still lives with rheumatoid arthritis but, although it has shaped the man he is today, he has done his utmost not to let it define him.

Blasé

"I wish I had documented it a lot better," he says. "I'm very blasé now. This was going on for about three years and I've broken it down now in just a few minutes.

"I'd love to know what I was thinking at the time. I mean, what were you doing when you were 14? I'd love to know. It's there. I just can't remember. I just wish I had written it all down . . . "

He was the youngest in a family of three; sister Charlene represented New Zealand schools in netball and was also proficient in basketball; mum Yvonne played netball too, while dad Jeff played on the wing for the Rangers in their home town of Nelson, the country's oldest city, perched atop the South Island.

From the age of five, he was with Stoke in Nelson and then Waimea Old Boys; the rugby bug was biting him hardest. Until one life-changing day when he was 14.

"It started with just a small rash. Then, man it just snowballed. Suddenly I couldn't get out of bed. My parents thought I was taking the p**s, trying to dodge school. I was a bit of a messer, so you could see their point."

Lowe wasn't from a privileged background so he got shunted from hospital to hospital, from adult care to child care, but diagnosis was elusive.

"The uncertainty was a big thing. Not knowing what was wrong. I'd be in remission for three months and then back in bed for three months. Back to square one."

There were days he couldn't walk to the toilet unaided, others when he couldn't use a knife and fork.

And then, finally, the miracle.

"I got a special subsidy to receive a new drug (Etanercept) and since I got that it was fine. It worked for me. Injecting myself twice a week until I gradually weaned myself off it in my early 20s."

He reckons by the time he was 17 his strength eventually returned and he would finish his schooling by making the national schools' side; from there to Tasman, the New Zealand U-20s, sevens.

Then the big one. The Crusaders Academy.

Enduring

As much as he can, he helps Arthritis Ireland and iCan Ireland (a children's support network) and goes to special camps; often, he will Skype people from home who may be enduring something similar to what he experienced as a teenager.

"It's mainly to try to help them to understand because there is so much confusion. And the parents, too.

"People want black and white but there's so much grey. There's still not much information and arthritis is such a big bracket. People think it's just an old person's disease. But I always stress what worked for me won't work for someone else.

"But five minutes from me could make such a huge difference for someone else."

When he left Crusaders to join Waikato Chiefs, his last stop before Ireland, a mental skills coach, David Galbraith, helped him navigate the darker recesses of his mind.

"I was 18 and seven hours from home, man. David just comes in and observes how you act. I was very self-conscious.

"I was saying yes to everyone, I was worried about media and stuff, I felt eager to over-please. It occupied a lot of real estate in my head.

"Now I don't care about any of that. I'm happy with life and work. I just got it down to achieving realistic goals, focusing on myself rather than anything outside."

He is driven by the pain of Champions Cup final defeat and the quest to get even better, but when he looks in the mirror each morning, he never forgets to give thanks for the day ahead.

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