Tommy Bowe: I can't wait to play in this superb Ulster side
After one of the most frustrating seasons of his career last time around, Tommy Bowe is determined to ensure there are no hiccups in his return from injury.
Following serious damage to knee ligaments in Ireland's World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina last October, the Monaghan man was on the sidelines until April only for his comeback attempt to last just one senior game.
While he bagged a brace of tries in his 80 minutes against Zebre - he was due to be eased back into action from the bench but Andrew Trimble took ill before the game in Parma - it was to be his sole Ulster appearance of the campaign and he missed the vital Pro12 run-in when the ailing joint flared up.
This time around, Bowe will ensure he is 100% before going full throttle.
"I think you're always eager to play and you want to be out there but you have to get yourself right," said the winger who was speaking on behalf of Subway, who will host their Helping Hearts Family 5K in Ormeau Park this Sunday.
"Whenever you're watching matches it makes it that bit harder; at the minute it's maybe easier with no matches on. You can step back and realise that time is on your side," he said.
"It's a big season ahead so I want to be fully firing for it. For your mind more than anything, it's realising that there is no huge rush at this time of year. Whenever you're ready to go you have to be as good as you can be."
While Bowe is currently with his team-mates in Vilamoura, Portugal for a week of warm weather training, he is unsure if he'll be ready for Ulster's three-game pre-season slate that begins with Leinster in Navan on August 13.
"They're coming very fast and we've quite a few this year which is great. We've a big squad so everyone will get an opportunity to put their hand up. If you're a young player or someone tried and tested, it's these games where you take your chances. Having that amount of pre-season games, with the internationals not back for them, there's opportunities there for lads," he said.
"At the minute, it's hard to say (on his own participation).
"I'm trying to get back to my peak condition. I can't rush myself and get fired up for those games. There's a possibility I could feature but we don't know at the moment."
Having spent his down time on America's west coast with wife Lucy, Bowe is enjoying the benefits of a full pre-season and is hoping to quickly regain the try-scoring form he displayed before injury struck.
The fateful afternoon in Cardiff came just when he had regained his place in the Ireland side, his tries at the World Cup meaning only Brian O'Driscoll has dotted down more often when wearing green.
The various injuries sustained since returning to his home province in 2012 have seen him miss huge chunks of time for Ulster and Ireland - he has taken part in just one of the last four Six Nations Championships - but, in a season when he will celebrate his 33rd birthday, he feels he still has plenty to offer both at Kingspan and on the Test stage.
"I definitely feel refreshed," he laughed when referencing his lengthy stints of absence.
"I've hardly played so I'm fresh and ready to go.
"It's just slowly building everything up and making sure not to rush things. We're progressing nicely at the minute and I'm making steps forward.
"It's great because it has been a pretty frustrating time and to miss such a chunk last season was very disappointing, especially when I thought I was in good form.
"When you're coming to the latter stages of your career, you want to play all those big games, all those big situations.
"I'm all the more excited now about the season that we have ahead. We've got Les Kiss here and he's putting in building blocks that are going to be here for a very long time."
After so many near misses in recent years, Bowe - one of four members of the team who played in the 2005/06 Celtic League winning campaign - would dearly love to help the side to silverware but the former Osprey does not feel the decade-long drought has left the squad with a mental obstacle to overcome.
"It's not a monkey on our backs and we know we have a squad that can go on to win not just once but be one of the top teams in our league," he said.
"These things all start when you build a winning mentality and it snowballs. It's been building blocks for the last couple of years but we still feel that we're going in the right direction.
"Everyone is very enthused about what we've done so far in pre-season. That's the case most years but when the matches come I think we're going to be ready and I'm looking forward to a big season ahead.
"The guys who have come in have made their mark on the squad already. As the season goes on we're going to have a squad that can go places.
"I'm very excited about the squad and excited by the coaches that we have here.
"In the past, we've always had strong squads but we're building a new culture that I think is going to bring everything together. We'll put things on the line for each other and we want to do whatever we need to do.
"Hopefully that will keep building in the weeks and months ahead."
The SUBWAY Helping Hearts Family 5K is back in Ormeau Park this Sunday. With lots of free entertainment including face-painting, games and a bouncy castle, it's the perfect day out for the whole family to enjoy in aid of the SUBWAY Healthy Heart grant scheme. Under-12s go free when accompanied by an adult and registration in advance is available at £7. Enter at www.5ksubway.com