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Ulster and Ireland rugby star Tommy Bowe on new holiday programme, dealing with retirement and family life

‘At the end of my career it was difficult for my wife to watch me play due to all the injuries I was picking up ... I think she is enjoying me not being on the pitch anymore’

By Leona O'Neill

Former rugby international Tommy Bowe bowed out of the game last summer and says that, although he misses the field, he is getting a new adrenaline rush these days "trying" his hand at television presenting.

The Belfast-based father-of-one, who spent 15 years representing Ulster and Ireland, will soon be back on our screens for the new series of BBC One NI's holiday show, Getaways.

He also fronts Eir Sport's coverage of the 2018-19 Guinness Pro14, the annual rugby union tournament involving professional sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales.

And he admits that this career adventure has brought a set of new challenges which he is relishing.

Tommy Bowe (34) grew up in Monaghan with a competitive spirit instilled in him by his sports mad parents.

"I have a younger brother and a younger sister and we lived in a place called Emyvale, a little village in north Monaghan," he says. "We were not far from the border, but it was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was super for us growing up. We used to cycle or walk to primary school, which was about a mile and a half away when the weather was decent. And even when it wasn't we'd just throw a jacket and a hat on and away we'd go. It was a great childhood. We had the fields, friends nearby and we were always out in the woods or playing football in the garden and rugby and all sorts."

And sport was also a big part of family life, with both parents encouraging lots of activity. Tommy's mother, Ann, worked as a physiotherapist, and his father, Paul, ran his own business in distribution.

"Both our mum and dad inspired a love of sport in us," says Tommy. "We played a bit of everything growing up - gaelic football, rugby, soccer, tennis, golf and horse riding. You name it and we pretty much spent all our time doing it. We were all very active. My sister Hannah went on to be a hockey international and my brother David played rugby, too. So sport was a big part of life growing up.

"When we were playing sport we were picking up knocks and lumps here and there, but I didn't get too many bad injuries until later on in my career. Mum spent her days seeing people who had injuries and when she came home from work the last thing she wanted to do was to look at what kind of shape we were in. So we were told to toughen up and get on with it."

Tommy adds that his dad gave him some valuable advice that carried him through his career and that his mum was always there with "just the right thing to say" when things didn't go well.

"My parents were big influences on me growing up," he says. "I think that my dad was the one who was always pushing. He was always there when I played sport, whether that was me playing gaelic football in the most remote parishes in Monaghan or athletics down in Dublin or Cavan or wherever. So my dad was always a huge supporter and always there watching. But then my mum was the one who I could come home to who when things didn't go well. I could have had a bit of a moan to. At the same time she was probably the one who pushed me harder than anyone. Mum knew me very well and she and I are very similar to each other so she would know the right thing to say, whether I needed a kick in the rear or an arm around the shoulder. She was a physio, but she wouldn't really have patched me up so much. I know I played rugby but I used to stay away from getting my nose bloodied and all that stuff. I used to stay out on the wing, kick the ball over the bar or score the try on the corner. There was none of that rough stuff for me."

The family also had a strong competitive streak - both with each other and in their own particular sports - which has no doubt been useful in Tommy's career as a professional player.

"Mum was very competitive - she still does a lot of horse riding," he says. "As a family we have always been very competitive with each other and push each other on, so that was great.

"When I was playing I used to get very annoyed with myself and upset if I made mistakes and it would affect my game.

"If I made an early mistake in the game, my confidence would drop and my head would drop. But I always tried to play with a smile on my face and to look like I was enjoying it. It was a way for me to keep my head up and my confidence high and not let the small things affect me. And that was something that my dad taught me. It was a psychological thing, to keep smiling and to remain positive.

"People always said that I played with a smile on my face and I made a conscious effort t)o do that. Even when things went wrong for me or I made a mistake, instead of smacking the ground or getting upset I'd just try and laugh it off, know that I had the ability and just keep going."

Tommy, who married former Miss Wales Lucy Whitehouse in 2015, had great reason to celebrate when he and his wife welcomed their baby daughter, Emma, 20 months ago - an event he describes as life-changing.

"Being a dad is brilliant," he says. "Emma is a star. She is at a great age, she is full of chat and little words and running around and climbing.

"Becoming a father has changed my life. Parenthood is a big shock to the system. We wonder what we used to do with our time. It is a huge shock to your life. I have had a lot going on in the last year and a half. I played rugby for 15 years and retired from that in the summer and tried to get into television. And having a little girl. It's been a real roller coaster but it has been brilliant. We have really enjoyed it and Emma has just been great fun to be around. I have to credit Lucy, she has been brilliant, and she and Emma are like best buddies."

And carrying on the tradition for passing down fatherly advice, he says he hopes his daughter will "try everything".

"I think if I had any advice for Emma it would be this," he suggests. "With reference to sport, people like to get locked in on one sport from a young age and they get pushed in that direction. From my own experience, I believe it's great to try many different sports and then eventually something will stick. And I think, for her in life as well, it's a case of not guarding her, allowing her to do whatever she wants to do as long as she is enjoying herself, and she'll find her way.

"She isn't really showing any competitive streak at the moment. She's at the terrible twos stage. It might be a bit early but she is well able to lob a ball at me, or one of her toys."

Tommy retired from rugby in the summer of 2018. He had won 69 caps for Ireland - and one of his golden moments came in the 2009 Six Nations when his try against Wales helped Ireland win the Grand Slam. And, in 2010, he was named Six Nations Player of the Championship.

After such a glittering career, Tommy says he misses the game and that the end of his rugby routine was a "shock to the system".

Describing the impact it had on his life, he ponders: "Retiring was a huge change. Playing professional sport was a dream job for 15 years. It was incredible. And to be able to play in big matches, I was so fortunate. But it came to the stage when my head and my body were telling me that the time had come to call an end to it.

"And I was very fortunate to be able to make my own decision. A lot of guys who I played alongside would have been forced into retirement through injury or loss of contract. So it gave me a good opportunity to plan it and savour every opportunity and be able to wave goodbye and move on. In that sense it has been brilliant.

"But it is a big shock. You go from a routine where you know exactly what you are doing every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Sports people are nearly like a bunch of sheep. We are told what to wear, what to eat, when to train. So to go and try to find your own routine and plan things takes a good bit of getting used to. But I'm getting there and I'm enjoying a little bit more freedom too, which is nice.

"I think my mum and my wife in particular are happy that I've finished with playing rugby, because of the injuries I picked up at the end of my career.

"At the end of my career it was difficult for them both to enjoy watching me play. I think they are enjoying me not being on the pitch anymore."

He says he gets "a different rush" now from live TV compared to running out onto the pitch at the Aviva Stadium.

"You'll never recreate the adrenaline rush you get when you're running on to a pitch," he says. "It's a big thing. And people who still try to chase it will be unhappy because they will never be able to get the thrill of scoring a try in the Aviva Stadium again.

"It's important to realise that you were there and that you did it, but then it's time to try and find your kicks in other ways. For me, that is being involved in Eir Sport and covering all the Pro14. Whenever I've got my earpiece in and the director's coming on and telling me I have 20 seconds, 10 seconds, and then the three, two one and you see the red light and you're staring down the barrel of the camera, that to me is a different type of adrenaline rush, but it does give me a kick every weekend.

"The pressure of having to play well every week was more for your team-mates and for the fans. Obviously I'm doing live TV now and I get a bit annoyed with myself again if I make a mistake. But I realise that me fluffing my lines on the opening of the show, the supporters aren't going to get as annoyed with me at that as they would if I missed a tackle and let the opposition in to score a try. I have to realise that I can make the odd mistake in this and it's not quite as important as it was on the pitch."

Tommy will be back on our screens this week with the second series of the popular BBC NI holiday show, Getaways. He'll again be travelling the globe and picking out the hidden holiday gems for the summer sun seekers.

"It's myself or Joe Lindsay, Vogue Williams and Mairead Ronan again," he says. "There are four presenters and we split up into two. Last season I visited the Cote d'Azur, Spain and Ibiza and this season I'm in Seattle, Porto in Portugal and Lanzarote.

"I've been to Lanzarote loads of times with family and friends. I didn't really leave the hotel, just going to the pool and maybe to the beach. But with Getaways it was amazing. I was there for five days, I got to visit some really amazing beaches on the other side of the island. We went to the top of a volcano and there was a restaurant on the edge of the volcano. It was incredible.

We went to a bookshop in Porto that the moving staircases in Harry Potter were inspired by. There are so many little nuggets that we think people will really appreciate when they are planning their holidays."

Tommy says he knows how important holidays are to people, and has fond memories from his own childhood jaunts.

"I remember us going to Waterford, where my dad was from," he says. "And we used to go camping in France. There we'd be loading up the car in Monaghan, driving down to Cork, heading on the overnight ferry to France, driving a couple of hours to a campsite in France. I'd imagine my dad was pretty stressed out by the time we got there as we would annoy him so much in the back of the car. And there were five of us in a tent in France. He had some patience. They were great days - I have the fondest of memories of family holidays. And those are the sort of memories I hope to create with my own family in years to come."

Tommy and his wife enjoyed travelling extensively but since Emma arrived have stayed closer to home.

"Lucy is Welsh so we've been over to visit her family quite a lot," he says. "We have been to Majorca and France. I think my favourite holiday destination would have to be the Maldives. We went there on our honeymoon. I thought I was going to be bored out of my tree over there, but it was incredible."

Tommy says he hopes to explore television and presenting options further in the future.

"I really enjoy getting involved with television," he says. "I always wanted to get into television and explore whether presenting would be for me. A lot of players go into the punditry side of things and they talk about rugby and are very analytical, because it has been what we've done for so long. But I like the idea of going on the other side and being the man asking the questions, rather than the one answering them.

"So to get the opportunity to go into Getaways and to learn and be comfortable speaking to camera and learning a paragraph about the history of some cathedral on the top of some hill in the south of France was great. It was a new challenge for me. And so was the live sport. That is the route that I wanted to go and I have been very fortunate so far.

"At the moment, with regards to what's next, it really is to get better at it. It's not something you can just walk in to and expect to be good at it. I know that I'm a long way off with regards to where I want to be, but it's a case of practice and experience."

Tommy says the competitive streak that took him to the top of his field is still very strong and that, no matter what he does next, he will keep "pushing on" to be better and better.

"There is always so much to aim for," he says. "I won't get too content just yet. There is still that competitiveness within me that will keep me pushing on."

The new series of Getaways begins on BBC One NI on Monday at 7.30pm

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