Ulster's Tommy Bowe back for Lions thanks to hurling glove and savvy surgeon
The scar on the back of Tommy Bowe's right hand is about two inches long and heavily encrusted with a vivid scab that will remind him for some time to come of the perilous nature of Lions touring.
"My family were in town when the injury happened," the Ulsterman said, shortly after being named in Warren Gatland's starting line-up for Saturday's momentous meeting with the Wallabies. "I sent them a text telling them: 'Game over.' To think I've gone so quickly from that low to this high… I'm just incredibly excited."
Bowe's problem was diagnosed as a spiral fracture of the metacarpus – a busted hand, in other words. He sustained the injury in the victory over Queensland Reds – the third match of the tour – and when James Robson, the Lions doctor, cast an educated eye over the damage on the side of the pitch, his immediate response was not encouraging. "I'm sorry," he said.
Hence the profoundly pessimistic nature of the big wing's message to his nearest and dearest. It was only when a local surgeon by the name of Peter Rowen pointed out that in rare cases the usual six-week recovery period could be cut in half that Bowe caught the faint whiff of a reprieve.
"I should be best mates with Mr Rowen," the Irishman said in embarrassed tones, having failed to remember his name at the first time of asking. "I think he usually goes sailing on a Sunday morning, but he came in first thing to do the operation for me. He told me that, typically, this type of problem meant six to eight weeks in a cast. But he also said that while it might be sore, and that I might have to dig in, it was possible to get back in three. He'd seen one or two rugby league players manage it.
"And he was right, so I can't thank him enough. To be honest, I felt good enough to play in the first Test last weekend, but the management thought it would be better to give it the extra few days. Now, with a bit of padding on it, I'll be ready."
This padding will take the form of a hurling glove, flown in from Ireland by special delivery, and if it works for Bowe, the Lions will have one of their key players performing at full tilt for the price equivalent of a round of Melbourne coffees. "I remembered Andrew Trimble using one of those gloves when he had the same kind of problem," Bowe said, referring to his fellow Ulster and Ireland wing. "We had one shipped straight out."
Gatland's decision to promote the 29-year-old from Co Monaghan over the Welsh wide man Alex Cuthbert, scorer of a fine try in Brisbane six days ago, was entirely predictable. Cuthbert might consider himself unlucky, but Bowe is the man who has been through the fires for the Lions, having started all three high-octane Tests against the Springboks on the 2009 Lions tour. He has all of Cuthbert's finishing prowess, but is more secure in defence and may well be stronger in the "top four inches", as the All Blacks like to put it.
"He's a massive player for us, a genuine big-game player," Gatland explained. "One of the things you can't coach is experience. Tommy has the kind of experience that allows him to slot very quickly into a side after a spell of injury. We've tried not to make rash decisions when people have been hurt on this tour: we agreed we would give players 24 or 48 hours' space and allow the medical staff an opportunity to get them right. In Tommy's case, the message came through fairly quickly that he might have a shot, that the three-week timeframe was a possibility. I'm happy he's fit."
This, then, is Bowe's chance to close the book on the events of '09, when the Lions lost an epic second Test, and indeed the series, after Morne Steyn nailed a long last-kick penalty in the thin air of Pretoria.
"That was heartbreaking," he said. "When you're on a Lions tour, you do wonder what will happen in the future if you can't win a series. I do get the feeling here that this could be our time.
"I know there'll be a lot of pressure on me, not just because Alex and George North, our wings last week, scored such wonderful individual tries, but because we've been building up to this for the last four years. Since the end of the '09 series, everything has been geared towards winning this one. So much has gone into it, and there'll be so many eyes watching. So yes, the pressure is huge, but with it comes massive rewards. As a professional sportsman, this is where you want to be. This is where you want to push yourself."
Belfast Telegraph Digital