Tommy Bowe looks to Heineken Cup holy grail
Ulster's Tommy Bowe may be one of the province's most decorated rugby players but a Heineken Cup medal has proved to be elusive for the flying wing – an omission from his C.V. that he is determined to rectify this season.
Ahead of tonight's opening Pool 5 tie against the Premiership champions Leicester Tigers, the 51-time-capped international said: "The Heineken Cup is the one thing I dream about lifting. I went to Ospreys and now am back at Ulster, two sides who you expect to be up there in this competition, but it's one that I haven't been able to win.
"I really do think though that we have the personnel to do it this year. We have competition for places right through the squad and this is a team that wants to be winning silverware.
"There is an expectation among the players after reaching two finals in two years, even though, unfortunately, we couldn't win either of those games. We want to be winning things and we know what we have to do to put ourselves in the best position to do that."
Having spent his summer in Australia as part of the victorious British and Irish Lions' tour, starred when Ireland stormed to an historic Six Nations Grand Slam in 2009 and won two PRO12 medals with Ospreys during his time in south Wales, Bowe is no stranger to being part of successful teams but the quarter-finals, a stage he has reached three times, remain the furthest he has advanced in European competition.
Last season he returned from a serious knee injury, sustained in the pool game with Northampton, just in time to take a place on the bench for Ulster's last-eight encounter with Saracens at Twickenham but his second-half introduction could not prevent Mark Anscombe's men from losing 27-16.
That disappointment is matched by a failure at the same stage on two separate occasions with Ospreys when, despite lining up alongside the likes of Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones and the since-departed trio of Mike Phillips, Shane Williams and James Hook, they were comprehensively beaten by Munster in 2009 and then by Biarritz one year later.
And if he and his teammates are to progress further in the competition this year, the Monaghan man believes a strong start tonight is imperative given the testing nature of a pool that also includes a Montpellier side making waves in the Top 14 and a Treviso outfit that boasts a huge contingent from the Italian national team.
"We know we're in a very tough pool this year so our home games are going to be really important and that starts now. With the crowd behind us, and the new stand as well, it's going to be a great spectacle."
Ulster have rebounded from reverses against Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors to win three games in succession, the most recent of which was a notable success against Bowe's former team Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium last week.
Leicester, meanwhile, were considered fortunate to salvage a draw against Northampton on Saturday afternoon after trailing for much of the game and were also been beaten by Bath last month.
Despite recent stutters, and the fact that the two-time Heineken Cup winners will be without the services of Lions pair Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft through injury, Bowe is well aware that Richard Cockerill's side is one infused with considerable talent.
There are Lions aplenty among the Tigers, with the likes of the Youngs brothers, Ben and Tom, Dan Cole and Geoff Parling (pictured) sure to out it up to the Ulster pack.
"It's going to be a very difficult game when you look at the quality they have but I think we're as good a team if not a better one so we'll be confident even going into such a tough match," said Bowe.
The 29-year-old has always relished the big occasion and tonight will be no different.
"You absolutely notice the difference when it comes to Heineken Cup time," he adds. "It's really enjoyable coming into these games when you have that sense of excitement and intensity in training all week.
"It obviously doesn't come much bigger than playing the Leicester Tigers either so it should be a massive match."
Indeed it should bring the kind of atmosphere that only the Heineken Cup can, just one of a myriad of reasons why Bowe believes it would be a travesty if the impasse in negotiations between the ERC and clubs in England and France that threatens the future of the competition is not solved post haste.
"It would be a massive blow if the competition doesn't continue on after this year. As professional players we want to be to be in the best competitions there are so the current situation is quite worrying with all the uncertainty and not really knowing.
"Hopefully there is a resolution soon, as long as we're involved in whatever format it takes on."
If this year does prove to be the last season of the Heineken Cup as we know it, then the competition's final at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium in May will take on an even greater significance – Bowe for one already has his sights firmly set on being there.