Tommy Bowe knows competition is fierce as he closes in on an Ulster comeback
Speaking to Tommy Bowe about how he's shaping up after another injury seems to have become an all too regular feature of chats with him over recent seasons.
In fact, it has happened so much that the talk follows a pattern which goes something like this: "How's the injury?" - he answers with plenty of optimism and a shrug and a smile about his ill-fortune.
"When are you back?" - this is rarely met with a specific answer, but a lot of chatter about getting and being close.
Then there is the "Do you think you'll be back in time for Ireland soon?" - this one always comes equipped with a response along the lines of "I'd love to, but I've a lot to do just to get back playing for Ulster".
And, of course, if there is a British and Irish Lions tour less than a year away, well, those ones have to be carefully batted aside too, never mind the fact that, right now, wearing the red shirt for a third tour seems a fairly distant prospect.
And so, Bowe finds himself at Tuesday's Guinness PRO12 launch, where the player and his inquisitors settle down for another bout of admittedly always good-humoured talk surrounding his fitness.
In his defence, it is easy to empathise with the 32-year-old who managed just one game for Ulster last term after suffering serious knee damage in Ireland's World Cup exit the previous autumn.
His injury profile has been far too high over the last few seasons with, of course, the fear being that each incident adds something towards further diminishing his ability to shred defences and score tries.
As things turned out, Bowe's return in his solitary game for the province last season still saw him touch down twice in April's victory at Zebre, but then the knee issue flared up again to rule him out for the rest of the season.
It's been undeniably difficult for him and, having missed out on Ulster's pre-season games, he can now only offer an approximate point of return a few games in after next week's PRO12 kick-off.
"I feel good, I feel great. I am fit," the league's record try scorer insisted. "My knee has been a disaster for about a year now.
"I did get back for that game in April and then found bone bruising on my knee. It seems so innocuous, but it is very hard to get rid of.
"I had a good break over the summer and got rested up before coming back as if it were going back to basics. I built up my quads and my calf to new levels whereby I could take the pressure off my knee. It feels like it is a new knee again.
"I'm putting the final nuts and bolts on and am ready to rock. At the moment, I feel great."
So, the question regarding the 67-time Irish capped winger's actual return is then floated in his direction.
"I have a few markers still to tick and hopefully in a couple of weeks I can get out there again," he stated.
As usual, he mentions the fact that things have been downbeat Ireland-wise and that just getting selected in the now formidable-looking Ulster backline will be quite a task.
In fairness, Bowe, whose deal runs up to summer 2018, isn't just trotting out convenient sound bites.
"I've missed three of the last four Six Nations through injury which is really tough but now it is all about getting into this Ulster backline. Given that it has been strengthened yet again, this will be difficult," he said.
"And with Charles (Piutau) and Jared (Payne) in the back-line, well, these are the guys I want creating space for me.
"This is the strongest backline I can remember with Ulster. It's difficult for our boss Les Kiss to pick the team but at least I hope he can pick me."
And what of the Lions? A familiar smile comes with the only possible answer.
He added: "It's a case of not looking too far ahead at the minute, but if I can get back to playing at the level I know that I can, who knows what can happen?"
Meanwhile, Ulster assistant coach Allen Clarke is eager to see how the senior squad fare tomorrow evening when they meet Northampton Saints at the Kingspan Stadium in the final pre-season friendly before the rough and tumble of the PRO12 gets going.
"It will be another very physical game," said Clarke, who served the province with distinction in his playing days, of Ulster's second clash with a Premiership side in less than a week after last Saturday's defeat at Exeter Chiefs.
"It will be an excellent benchmark of where we are right now. We'll need to get our building blocks absolutely right to ensure an 80-minute quality performance."