Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Bowe's return a boost for both Ulster and the Lions

Tommy Bowe's return to fitness is perfectly timed for Ulster and also gives him a chance of making the Lions squad
Tommy Bowe's return to fitness is perfectly timed for Ulster and also gives him a chance of making the Lions squad

Ulster predictably got back to winning ways against the Dragons. No matter what has happened before there is a certain pleasure in seeing your team return to sit at the top of the league table.

Clearly there will be relief at knowing that Ulster have made the playoffs, but there can be no complacency as the final placings are far from over.

Having lost out on a Heineken Cup home quarter- final by slipping up against Northampton Saints, one would expect that the lingering pain of this will drive the Ulster players and coaches towards gaining that advantage in the semi-final play-offs.

But there cannot be any slip-ups – Leinster and Glasgow are snapping at their heels. There is also an enormous struggle between the Ospreys and the Scarlets.

While it is possible that both could make it, in all likelihood there will be only one Welsh representative.

Nonetheless, it is good for the competition that it looks like Ireland, Scotland and Wales will all be represented and should guarantee real interest and big crowds for another couple of weeks.

One of the few highlights of the defeat to Saracens was the return of Tommy Bowe.

With the Lions clearly in his sights, Tommy has to make a big impact and quickly. This can only be to Ulster's benefit.

While his timing has been left almost to the last minute, he sure knows how to make an impact.

As an ex-winger, I can't help but follow the fortunes of other players in that position.

Ulster is blessed with so much talent in this area.

The triumvirate of Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe have all weighed in at some stage this season and all offer slightly different things.

The animalistic tendencies of Trimble are counterbalanced by the almost balletic quality of Gilroy's feet, while Bowe simply oozes class and his long levers offer something a little bit different in terms of offloading ability. While Trimble has been unseated at an Irish level, his form for Ulster has been impressively consistent both in terms of his work and scoring rate.

He has got to be up there as a real candidate for player of the season. Craig Gilroy had a good Six Nations which could potentially put him in the mix as a young bolter for the Lions, although the reappearance of Simon Zebo and his ability at international level to cover wing and fullback makes this even more of a competitive area.

Finally, Bowe's return to fitness unquestionably offers him a chance of Lions selection – Warren Gatland knows him from his time in Wales and will have a healthy respect, if not an affection, for what Bowe has done with Ireland.

What might tip it in his favour is the fact that he has been there, done that, and his T-shirt is nicely ironed, just sitting in a drawer waiting to be hauled out again.

All Ulster's three top wingers are tough for the opposition to handle.

Another winger who proved hard to handle at the weekend was Saracens wing David Strettle who very much put me in my place. Watching Ulster's defeat at Twickenham in the Sky studio, not only was I critical of Ulster's performance but I was also pretty harsh on Sarries in terms of the defensive and limited way that they had played.

I said that if I was Strettle I didn't think it would be much fun playing on the wing as he hadn't received an attacking pass all game.

One week on and he scored three tries in 24 minutes – the fastest hat-trick in Premiership history – including one which was a tremendous individual effort and finish.

Not only did he make me eat my words, but he rammed them down my throat in fine style.

He showed what he is capable of and yes, it was in a Saracens shirt.

Yet, it is a sad indictment of professional rugby that many of the most successful teams choose to revert to conservative and invariably unspectacular rugby in the big games.

Of course, that is the nature of the beast. The pragmatism of professional rugby means that a strong defence, error-free rugby and a quality kicker can often be enough to bring you victory.

Alas, I am afraid that I will remain a purist – in this regard, I hope that Trimble, Gilroy and Bowe will play a leading role in Ulster success in the coming weeks.

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