Tommy Bowe returns ahead of decisive games
Tommy Bowe's Ulster comeback against Newport Gwent Dragons tonight is not just a Heineken Cup quarter-finals boost for the province.
Ulster and Irish team-mate Iain Henderson hopes it means brilliant Bowe may yet play some part in Ireland's Six Nations title bid.
"That's all up to the management," Henderson said at yesterday's Ireland training session in Belfast.
But when asked how Bowe had looked in training, Henderson added: "He's good – he has trained all this week and he was training really well with Ulster.
"But, as far as Ireland is concerned, it's a management call. We have no say or idea of who's coming in or who's going; we just wait until Saturday or Sunday night when we get an e-mail saying, 'Meet in Carton House on Monday evening'."
Bowe's return is a definite boost for Ulster in terms of the impending April 5 sellout Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens at Ravenhill.
But Ireland might be a step too far for 59 times capped Bowe, who turned 30 a week ago. Tonight will be his first match in just over three months so he is seriously short of game-time.
In the circumstances it would be a massive gamble by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt to include the 2009 and 2013 British and Irish Lions Test winger for next week's Six Nations clash with Italy, given that he has not played since Ireland's epic battle with New Zealand over three months ago on November 24.
A torn groin muscle injury, which Bowe suffered in that match, had been expected to sideline him for six weeks; instead ended up keeping him out for twice as long as had been forecast.
During his time-out he missed Ulster's Heineken Cup Pool 5 dates with Benetton Treviso, Montpellier and Leicester Tigers, plus Ireland's opening RBS 6 Nations matches against Scotland, Wales and England.
Ulster have had to be patient with Bowe who, with South Africa's Ruan Pienaar, is one of the two brightest jewels in their crown.
Repeatedly they have insisted that they would give Bowe whatever time he required in which to make a full recovery rather than rush him back less than fully fit, thereby risking a further lengthy spell without him.
Since rejoining Ulster from the Ospreys in the summer of 2012, Bowe has fallen victim to a series of serious injuries.
A knee injury in the dying stages of Ulster's home date with Northampton in the Heineken Cup last season ruled him out for four months. He then missed the start of the current season with a wrist injury – a legacy of the Lions' summer tour.