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Tommy Bowe: Days like these mean more than ever

Dark times brought on by injury now firmly in past thanks to Euro ties

By Jonathan Bradley

When the final whistle sounded on last Saturday's enthralling, back-and-forth win over Clermont, the scenes of celebration were widespread among the Ulster players and faithful.

Iain Henderson let out a primal roar, an exhausted Luke Marshall sunk to his knees while, taking it all in, Clive Ross just shook his head at the events of the previous 80 minutes.

Meanwhile Tommy Bowe, simply and briefly, raised a lone fist in celebration before going to congratulate his team-mates and shake hands with the opposition players who had more than played their part in the occasion.

If the outward reaction to a victory that resurrected Ulster hopes of returning to the European quarter-finals seemed muted, inside his emotions were anything but.

Having endured a torrid time coming back from the serious knee injury sustained in Ireland's World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina in 2015, last weekend's win was the like of which Bowe often wondered if he would get to experience again when his rehab was at its most arduous.

"It was my first proper European game (back), and when you're out injured those are the games you miss the most," said the Monaghan man.

"After the match was the happiest I've felt in a long time because it's hard to replicate the pressure going into those games and the joy of beating a big team like Clermont.

"There's a lot of times I was stuck in that gym staring at the four walls and thinking it was never going to end, days where the knee felt bad and wondering whether it was all worth it any more.

"Whenever you get to go out there and sprint on the pitch without worrying about your knee, and to come away with the win 100% makes it worth it.

"That makes it good in your mind, all the hard work you put in, the struggles, and putting everyone around you down, because when you're injured you're not a very nice person to be around.

"It's hard because other people see the tough times, but for (wife) Lucy and my parents they're almost as delighted, if not happier, than me because they had to go through it as well.

"It was a great way to come out of it and hopefully we'll do it again this weekend and I'll be even happier."

Bowe knows better than most the challenge that awaits tomorrow in the Stade Marcel-Michelin having played, and indeed scored, at one of Europe's most raucous venues during his days with the Ospreys.

It was in the 2009/10 season that the Welsh region visited the Auvergne - Clermont won that day despite Bowe's early score but both sides ultimately qualified from the pool - giving the two-time Lion a first taste of what to expect.

"It's an incredible atmosphere," he recalled.

"The stadium is right in the middle of town - super atmosphere, super ground.

"I've been lucky to play in a few of the French grounds but Clermont is right up there.

"They're very passionate supporters and the atmosphere, especially when they get their tails up and things are going well for them, they can ramp it up and get on the opposition's back. Likewise, they were very quiet when we put them under a lot of pressure and that's what we'll have to try and do this weekend.

"We know it'll be a difficult game and we'll have to keep pressure on them for the whole game because they showed that at the weekend, we were comfortable at one stage but they squeezed us and in the end eked out a few tries that made it a very difficult game for us and got them the two (bonus) points.

"We know when we go over there we'll have to keep attacking, attacking, attacking for the whole match."

Bowe's stint with Ospreys makes him one of the squad's few local products to have tried his hand at playing further afield.

And while Clermont have looked towards this part of the world for recruits before - they were interested in taking Stephen Ferris to the Auvergne during Vern Cotter's reign - Bowe says he was never tempted by the euros on offer in the Top 14.

"I did my stint away in Wales, it's not quite the sunny climates of the south of France but I don't know about Clermont either.

"I enjoyed my time in Wales, I was over there for four years, but the opportunity came up to return to Ireland and I was delighted to get the chance to come back here.

"France was never on my mind too much."

As much as Ulster did right last week, on Bowe's mind this weekend will be how they can limit the space afforded to the Clermont backline.

While Noa Nakaitaci and Isaia Toeava have been restored to the side, Nick Abendanon was a try-scorer last week but Wesley Fofana was the pick of the bunch.

"Talking to a few of the guys I think our defence, we held off a little bit," he reflected.

"There were times where we could have gotten up in their face a bit but we were happy to drift off and give them easy yards.

"Once you do that, you'll keep going backwards until you're over your try line.

"From a defensive point of view, especially over there, we can't give them easy yards or we're chasing shadows all day."

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