Winger Tommy Bowe ready to win back place
Tommy Bowe is pure box-office. A magnificent rugby player whose finishing ability is second to none, he thrills crowds wherever he performs.
Big, lightning quick, skilful, physically strong, mentally tough, creative and a superb finisher, Bowe brings spectators to their feet.
His gifts as an off-field entertainer are no less impressive, witness television appearances as guest chef in The Restaurant and as a guest on RTÉ's Late, Late Show when he wooed the studio and watching television audience by virtue of his wit and warmth.
Indeed, so impressed were the RTÉ decision-makers that they made him the focus of a documentary entitled Tommy Bowe's Bodycheck.
Alas, the past two seasons have seem him sidelined by surgery to address a kidney-related health issue, followed by a variety of injuries. As a result he missed out on Ireland's Six Nations campaigns in 2013 and 2014. In his absence, others have stolen a march. And at 30 years of age, the Monaghan speed merchant knows the clock is ticking.
The good news is that he is feeling better than he has done for some time. The season-proper gets under way two weeks from now and, with a 2015 World Cup place to be won, Bowe is feeling good about the challenge that provides, even though he knows there is a lengthy queue of talented players all hoping to have risen above him in the pecking order during his time in dry dock.
He rhymes them off – Ulster colleagues Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy, Leinster pair Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden, Munster's Simon Zebo.
"There's so many young guys coming in these days – and Trimby as well – that I've really got to try and get myself back into the team again. In the past I would have been confident enough; now I've got to really work to force myself back in there again," he said.
"It is going to be difficult, but it's a real challenge for me and that's something I'm going to take a positive out of because it's something I'm going to have to fight for. I'm going to have to work my ass off to try and get myself into the team and certainly with a World Cup coming up there's a great incentive ahead of me."
As ever, he knows Leinster will provide the benchmark for Ulster this season. Winners of the PRO12 for each of the past two seasons, the Dubliners have mastered the art of winning. It's in their DNA now and, as Bowe sees it, their oldest adversaries' ability to perform when in matters most is something Ulster must learn to match.
"We had them on the rails in the (PRO12) semi-final at the end of last season and I suppose we just needed the belief that we could finish them off," he said. "Unfortunately we let them back into the game, let them score that try in the last couple of minutes and threw the game away.
"Two years ago in the Heineken Cup final they beat Ulster well. Then they beat us in the final of the Rabo and, although we gave them a good game, they were probably the better team on the day.
"Last year, in the semi-final of the Rabo, we were the better team. But they just had that winning mentality to go on and finish the game off.
"Those are the small things that make a big difference, so if we can improve on that, that will be the difference between winning trophies or not."
Bowe believes there is a psychological barrier to be broken down. Ulster have done it in Europe, witness four successive seasons in which they have emerged from their pool, this after years of not being able to do so.
For years, too, winning in France proved to be impossible. But, having finally broken the hoodoo in 2013, Ulster repeated that success the following season.
"Not winning a trophy has been a bit of a monkey on our backs," he admitted. "We have been close, but we haven't quite managed it. I think if we were to win one, we'd go on to win a good many more. Hopefully this is the year.
"Last year we were in a position to do it; we had the home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup but, unfortunately, things went the way they did there. Then in the PRO12 semi-final, Leinster were there for the taking and we didn't quite do it.
"I've no doubt that if we were to get through that, it would make a big difference."
Asked if he truly believes Ulster are strong enough to compete on two fronts, Bowe was in no doubt.
"I definitely think we are," he replied. "It's difficult, and with this new (European) competition it's going to be even more difficult. But we've seen the likes of Leinster able to do it and we've certainly got the squad that can do it now.
"The strength in depth we have at the minute is frightening. So yeah, I think we're in a great position to go forward in both competitions."
Even allowing for the loss of players like Johann Muller, John Afoa, Tom Court, Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace, Bowe is upbeat in his assessment of this Ulster squad that has been inherited by interim Director of Rugby Les Kiss.
"Stevie and Paddy have been stalwarts of Ulster Rugby for a long, long time," he said. "Obviously Johann and John are big losses, but Stephen and Paddy were big personalities off the pitch as well.
"They represent what Ulster are about, so they're going to be missed, no doubt about that. But we have so many young fellas coming through that I think we can feel very positive about it.
If you just look at the first-centre berth you have Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey, who is a massive lump of a guy, but has great feet and is very skilful, and Stuart Olding, who is another real talent.
"All three of those young ones have been very impressive. And then, potentially, you have Darren Cave who can play 12 as well. That's the standard of competition for one position."
The competition for places in the back three is no less impressive, with South African full-back Louis Ludik having joined during the summer. Jared Payne is another choice at 15, though a switch to 13 could take him out of the mix. But both Ricky Andrew and Peter Nelson want the job, too, while Gilroy and Olding offer further options.
As well as internationals Trimble and Gilroy, Mike Allen, Rory Scholes and the highly promising Jacob Stockdale will push for inclusion on the wing, all serving to remind Bowe that there is no guarantee of a place these days.
Even with Ulster's front-line troops missing from the line-up for tonight's Kingspan Stadium friendly with Exeter Chiefs (7.30pm), there is sufficient talent to underline the depth now available.
Ulster: R Andrew; R Scholes, L Ludik, M Allen, J Stockdale; I Humphreys, P Marshall; C Black, J Andrew, D Fitzpatrick; A O'Connor, F van der Merwe; C Butterworth, S Reidy, R Wilson (captain). Replacements: K McCall, J Murphy, A Warwick, R Murphy, B Ross, W Herbst, L Stevenson, N McComb, J Simpson, C Joyce, C Ross, M McComish, F Taggart, J Atkinson, M Heaney, D Shanahan, R Adair, J Owens, S O'Hagan
Fit-again Tommy is feeling great and raring to go
Opponents be warned – Tommy Bowe is looking good, feeling good, sounding good and raring to go.
Not only should opposition players be concerned – so too should Ulster and Irish team-mates who may have been eyeing his jersey.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the Ulster, Ireland and Lions wing sensation made it plain that he is coming back with a real hunger borne of frustration after missing huge swathes of 2012-13 and 2013-14.
The 2009 Grand Slam winner confirmed his readiness for the fray and underlined his determination to ensure that when Ireland select their squad for the autumn 2015 World Cup, his will be one of the first names on Joe Schmidt's list.
"I feel great and really looking forward to an injury-free season all being well," the 30-year-old said.
"Back in November I hurt my groin in the Ireland-New Zealand match and literally, for the remainder of the season, I was just trying to get back up to speed again.
"I tried to rehab it back. I missed the Six Nations, but unfortunately it just wasn't working. So during the summer I had it operated on and now it feels like a new groin altogether.
"I'm feeling really good and really excited about the season ahead."
Recalling the traumas through which he has come since re-joining Ulster from Ospreys in the summer of 2012 he cited kidney surgery which carried out towards the end of his final season with the Welsh region. That saw him miss the start of the 2012-13 campaign.
"After eight years in which I hardly missed a match it seemed to catch up with me a bit," he said. "Obviously I missed some owing to that operation on my kidney, though that was more of a health issue than an injury. Then I ruptured my knee ligaments (playing for Ulster against Northampton Saints in December 2012), though that was a freak accident. Then to break my hand on the Lions tour (June 2013), that was another freak one.
"So the groin really is the first one from wear and tear, but since having the operation it just feels 100 per cent again.
"It was the only one I'd been worried about. But it feels great now, so like I said, I'm pretty excited about the season ahead."
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