Young guns will keep us on our toes: Tommy Bowe
Star knows competition is tough with Lyttle and Stockdale shining
When Tommy Bowe first broke into the Ireland set-up, he had to go on car journeys down the M1 with only David Humphreys for company.
That was back in 2004, when Bowe was just 21-years-old. Now, a mini-bus would be required to ferry the Ulster representation to national camps.
On the recent tour to South Africa, nine players from the northern province were handed caps by Joe Schmidt while Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray were the only backline players to start the second Test who do not call Kingspan Stadium home.
Having been held to a watching brief thanks to injury as the PRO12 got under way last week, Bowe believes there is plenty more emerging talent in the pipeline.
Young wingers Rob Lyttle and Jacob Stockdale grabbed headlines with three of the side's four tries against Newport with Bowe hugely impressed by the duo, who will again lead the charge against Treviso this evening.
"It just shows the strides that we have made here," said the Monaghan man. "It's only going to get stronger with the guys we have in the Academy and teetering on the edge of getting into the senior set-up.
"It was exciting to see the likes of Jacob and Rob have stormers last week. They went really, really well and have carried their form from pre-season into the PRO12.
"They've been looking sharp all year and that's excellent to see. It's a big part of what Ulster Rugby is. The succession plan and the work that's going in at Academy level, that's the future for the province.
"It's a very strong position for Ulster to be in and long may it continue. If we can get as many people in the Ireland squad as we have, it means we're doing something right. People can step up and that's what we're trying to build."
At just 19 and 20 respectively, Lyttle and Stockdale will only improve. All Black full-back Charles Piutau, however, is already in his prime with Bowe eagerly anticipating his first chance to link up with the star signing.
"He's been excellent," said Bowe of the man who misses today's trip with a thumb injury. "Like the two young lads, he has the skill and class and has taken that into matches. He's a player who as a winger you love to play off. He breaks the first tackle, looks for offloads, draws defenders and that makes space for you. It's exciting to know you can be playing alongside someone like that."
His presence, plus the emergence of the inexperienced pair, only adds to what is sure to be a selection headache for Les Kiss when the Director of Rugby has a full deck.
In what is a stacked squad behind the pack, the back-three is especially hard to separate.
Piutau has expressed a desire to play full-back, while Lyttle and Stockdale have shown their worth on the wings, but there is also an Irish international quartet to return.
Jared Payne ended last season in the No.15 jersey, although can be deployed in the midfield, and seems set to be in the mix for the trip to Glasgow in two weeks.
Wing Craig Gilroy is out today through concussion but will not be a long-term absentee and Andrew Trimble is near to a return after being held back due to the IRFU's Player Welfare Programme.
Bowe himself is expected to make a comeback, from essentially a year out with a knee injury, in the next four to six weeks. The two-time Lions tourist is looking forward to the challenge.
"We need it so that when we are missing players on international duty that we're not going to drop in standard," he said. "It's all about taking your opportunity. You don't get many chances and when you do you've got to take it which is what Rob and Jacob have done.
"Myself, Trimby and Gilly, we know we've got a fight to get back into those jerseys. It's a long season, and if we're to be successful that's what we need."
While still confined to the role of frustrated spectator, Bowe is hoping to see Ulster build on their competent opening round win over Dragons when in Italy this evening.
"I think they went okay," he said of last Friday's efforts. "We're delighted to get the win and the five points. That's what's most important. Les has talked a lot about the fine margins and those extra points can become so crucial when you get to the end of the season.
"There's a lot to work on. We can be more clinical but to start it was a good performance."
And after launching himself into the spotlight with a first senior try against Dragons last weekend, Stockdale has credited his presence at this summer's World Rugby Under-20 Championship as a prime factor in bringing on his game.
His second time at the tournament, the former Wallace pupil performed credibly in Ireland's run to the final and has picked up where he left off when returning to Kingspan.
He said: "I felt a lot more confident with it being my second U20s and I was one of the leaders in the team.
"There were some pretty fantastic players in there and we gelled really well. I worked really hard to try and add a bit to every single part of my skills. I feel that's really starting to come through now."
Returning today to the Stadio Monigo, where he made his Ulster debut, he knows he needs another big performance to keep hold of the jersey ahead of some established stars.
"We're trying to make it as competitive as possible but there is a lot of fantastic players to come back in," he said. "I'll do whatever I can to keep my spot. It's fantastic, learning from the likes of Charles Piutau, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble. They are all really helpful in training."