Tommy Bowe at home under the new Ireland Rugby regime
Ulster Rugby star impressed as Joe Schmidt prepares for first game as Ireland coach
Published 07/11/2013 | 12:00
It is little wonder that Tommy Bowe has a smile on his face as he ambles into the period sitting-room at Carton House. It's been a while since the gang was together.
They won't all play on Saturday but Joe Schmidt has managed to assemble a who's who of Ireland's top talent in Maynooth for his first gathering – something that was denied Declan Kidney towards the end of his reign.
More than two years have passed since Bowe was joined by Brian O'Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, Sean O'Brien, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney in the same game for Ireland – the 2011 World Cup exit to Wales.
The seven won't be on the same pitch this weekend as O'Connell and Sexton look set to miss out against Samoa in Dublin, but hope remains that Schmidt could send out the strongest Ireland team for years to take on Australia on Saturday week.
"There are one or two missing but it makes for a lot of selection issues I'm sure for the coaches. You can see in training that everyone is fighting for a position," Bowe said.
"Teams have been put randomly together and Les (Kiss) will take the defensive side and Joe will take the attacking side and we're going hammer and tongs at each other the whole time trying to put our mark down," added the Ulster star.
"That's been great because every player feels that they have an opportunity to stake a claim for a position – and that of course then brings the intensity up another level. There were very few dropped balls, and the quality of the skill-work has been excellent.
"In the last couple of years there have always been injuries and it's very hard to get 30 players where everyone feels they are a genuine option and are taking each other on.
"It has been fun the last week because there's a real competitive spirit between everyone and that comes with the new coach because everyone sees it as a fresh start."
Before hooking up with the Ireland camp, Bowe spoke of how much he was looking forward to working with Schmidt after years of playing against his teams for Ulster and Ospreys.
The beauty of the New Zealander's game is the combination of simplicity and effectiveness, and the 29-year-old Monaghan man is enjoying getting to grips with it.
"There's definitely clarity. We've stripped back a lot. Getting used to the new calls, patterns and plays took a week or so, but now that we've done that, things are quite simple," he said.
"But at the same time there's good clarity at the minute and it's quite exciting.
"Although things are simple, there are definitely areas that we can elaborate on and make space and create holes, which is definitely something that for me as a winger is exciting.
"It's very early, but going on Joe's previous work with Leinster, I'd be excited about his ambition. We're just trying to get structures in place at the minute and it's still fairly early days.
"We've a big match this weekend but we've got a lot of things in place. It's quite simple but at the same time there are a few tweaks that will hopefully open up holes and stretch teams, which is something we'll be looking to do. It's fairly exciting times.
"He's come in here, laid down markers and tried to make things quite clear. He's focused a lot on the accuracy that we want.
"Players all have a specific purpose. There's no point just clocking off. Whether you're a dummy-runner or you're getting the ball, everyone has to be alive all of the time.
"I think that sort of urgency and intensity combined with the clarity has really pepped up the squad. Certainly in the last week or so, training sessions have been really, really intense – as intense as I've ever remembered them.
"There's been a huge step-up and that's something the players have really enjoyed."
Meanwhile, Ireland boast four captaincy front-runners who could lead the squad into the Schmidt era, believes flanker Chris Henry.
The Ulster loose-forward sees Ireland's autumn international captaincy as a four-way fight between O'Connell, O'Driscoll, Heaslip and Ulster's Rory Best.
O'Connell is expected to feature in Saturday's opening autumn clash against Samoa, but forwards coach John Plumtree has admitted he may not last the full match.
Henry stressed whoever Schmidt chooses will receive the squad's full backing but he revealed the four men he feels best-placed to lead the side.
"We as players don't really know who the captain is yet," said the eight-cap forward.
"But look around: there are options all over the place and Paul (O'Connell) definitely is up there.
"There's a lot of inspirational characters there. I suppose sometimes when I'm running around training, you look at the circle of players and you still have to take a second glance sometimes, with Paulie, Drico and Jamie, and Rory as well.
"Whoever gets the nod will be extremely proud of course but there are options all over the place, and the fact that we have so many leaders, whoever gets the nod will have a lot of experienced hands behind him as well.
"I'm glad I don't have to make the decision, but in my head the four candidates would be Paul, Drico, Jamie and Rory.
"Any one of those boys will do exactly the right job and we'd all stick behind them exactly the way it should be."
Henry expects big-hitting Samoa to provide a stern test of Ireland's early credentials under Schmidt.
But he warned the Pacific Islanders' physical threat will be matched by their defence-splitting offloading game.
Henry said: "The small bit of defence we have done so far has been about their offloading game; their continuity.
"Once they get the ball, it's about us trying to connect (tackle) as quickly as possible.
"We want to keep the ball but there are going to be turnovers and whenever that happens we've got to respond very quickly.
"They've got some serious ball carriers in their team and they always want to keep the ball alive.
"We've got to focus on that ball and stop the offloads."