Tommy Bowe will run through brick walls to get Irish call
Only one adjective springs to mind when Tommy Bowe is asked to describe today's Guinness PRO12 tussle with Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park (5.15pm kick-off). "Huge," he says simply. "Huge."
While Connacht celebrated the title last season despite seven losses in their 22 games, few around Kingspan Stadium are under any illusions with regards to their current plight.
The side lost three league games in a row for the first time in four years prior to the international break, missing out on the chance for an expected victory to halt the slump when last weekend's clash with Zebre was postponed due to a frozen pitch.
"I was fortunate to play for the Barbarians but pretty much everyone else hasn't played in four weeks," Bowe noted.
"There probably will be a bit of rustiness."
The lay-off means that Ulster have had four weeks to stew over their defeat to Edinburgh in Murrayfield, a performance that was well below par across the board.
Bowe admits that the break would have been considerably more welcome for some of his team-mates had it arrived after a stronger showing.
"It certainly doesn't make it any easier anyway," he said of the team's poor run.
"That's the tough thing about that period, you can train all you like but there's nothing like being on the pitch and in a match environment. It's huge for us to get that back going into two European games against Clermont.
"The last game that we have in our heads is that Edinburgh game which was as disappointing a result and performance as we could have lingering in our heads.
"It would be nice to go out against Cardiff and put more of a positive spin on things going into Europe.
"To play against Cardiff on their own patch is tough but it'll be a fast track on the 3G.
"They're a great team to play against to try and get ourselves back firing again."
The same can be said of Bowe on a personal level as he continues to work his way back from the knee injury that resulted in virtually a year out of the sport.
Starting in October of 2015, having sustained the damage in Ireland's Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina, Bowe would play just one game before making his comeback in the win over Ospreys nine weeks ago.
The two-time Lion has found it a slow process but could sense his sharpness coming back when turning out for the invitational Barbarians against Fiji at Kingspan Stadium last month.
"I loved that Barbarians game," he enthused.
"There was no pressure, you just go out there.
"The conditions were crap but it was great craic and you were playing with boys who were there to throw the ball about a bit.
"I felt I was starting to get a few more touches again and get back to myself. When you take a step forward like that and then not to play in three weeks, it's a little bit frustrating.
"From my point of view, it was frustrating when the match was called off last week because I thought it was another chance for me.
"I haven't really played any back-to-back games and that's when you find that consistency.
"We look at it as a return to play and then a return to perform.
"There's always going to be those couple of games it takes you to get back that match sharpness, especially with me having been out for so long.
"It's going to take a couple of games but on the training field things have been going well.
"I feel really good. My speed is coming right back, my accelerations, collisions and stuff in contact.
"It just takes games to get your confidence up. I know I can do it, it's just getting on the ball in games and getting involved.
"Training has gone very well and we trained hard up to the postponement last weekend but it's the games where you get that sharpness
"There is a good run of games now so hopefully I will be able to push things on."
That frustration he talks of must have been felt all the more keenly when watching Ireland make history without him.
The Monaghan man was front and centre on so many of Ireland's biggest days since making his debut in 2004 but had to watch on as Joe Schmidt's men toppled the All Blacks for a first time in Chicago and then completed the calendar-year clean sweep of the southern hemisphere powers by beating Australia.
"It's been difficult," noted the 32-year-old.
"I'm not a great spectator as it is, especially when I'm fit.
"Over the last while I haven't been available, I've been injured. At the same time, now, I might be fit but I know I'm not match sharp enough to be playing at that level just yet."
Still confident he will get back to peak performances soon, the wing has been in plenty of contact with Schmidt.
"I chatted to Joe at the start of the autumn campaign and it wasn't anything I hadn't expected," he said.
"I'd only played 100 minutes at that stage so I knew it was going to be a long shot, getting into the squad.
"He said 'listen, we just need to see you play rugby, playing games and getting yourself back going again'.
"For me that was ideal because going back into the Irish set-up and trying to step it up to that level wasn't right.
"I am a good few weeks down the line from there now.
"But Joe kept in touch and with Les Kiss being so close, Les is on to me saying he is chatting to Joe all the time."
In what must be close to a must-win, Bowe will hope to give the pair something to talk about this evening.