Six Nations: Ireland's current crop can emulate Grand Slam heroics: Bowe
Three wins from three in the Six Nations and a game against Scotland between themselves and a Grand Slam showdown, the situation facing Joe Schmidt's Ireland this weekend is familiar terrain.
It was the same story nine years ago as the 2009 vintage prepared for the fourth leg of what would eventually be the side's first clean sweep in over 50 years and, as such, Tommy Bowe knows just what will be going through the heads of the 23 men selected to take on Gregor Townsend's side in the Aviva Stadium tomorrow (2.15pm kick-off).
While the Monaghan man, who will hang up his boots after this season, will always be remembered for his role in the dramatic Millennium Stadium denouement, he recalls the efforts made to keep the players focused one week prior, even if, he admits, it put the fear of God into the squad at the time.
Declan Kidney, about to return to pro rugby with London Irish, took the bold decision to change a winning team with Jamie Heaslip, Paddy Wallace, Tomas O'Leary and Jerry Flannery all dropping out of the side.
"That really spiced things up for us," Bowe recalled. "It gave a few guys from the bench a chance to shine, and a few guys who had been starting all the way through a bit of a wake-up to push that bit harder."
Unlike in '09, Schmidt has already gone deep into his squad thanks to injuries and, with England to come after Scotland, Iain Henderson returning from the bench rather than starting was the headline news from yesterday's team announcement.
As Bowe looks back on that side from almost a decade ago, he is struck that only two names remain in the present set-up.
The 34-year-old played his last game in green against Wales a year ago tomorrow, a cameo that lasted all of a minute before he broke his leg after being sprung from the bench in the final moments.
While he still harboured hopes of pulling on a green jersey for a 70th time - he'll retire on 69 Ireland appearances, although with Lions caps included his final Test tally stands at 74 - instead he'll round off his rugby career in Ulster white as the side look to scrape their way into the Champions Cup for next season.
And while Bowe came back from his injury that Cardiff evening, Heaslip was not so lucky.
The previously indestructible No.8 played for the final time in the same game, the back injury he suffered in the warm-up of the next week ultimately leading to last week's announcement that he would retire with immediate effect.
Donncha O'Callaghan, who hasn't played for Ireland in five years, has already announced he's calling time on his own playing days after Worcester's season, while Peter Stringer, now aged 40, has been without a club since last December.
Rory Best and Rob Kearney, who both start tomorrow, are the last men standing.
"I'm convinced Rory is the oldest of the lot of us too," laughed Bowe of the Ulster and Ireland skipper.
"He just goes from strength to strength at the minute, Rob too. It's incredible to see them still there, still playing for Ireland and still playing well for Ireland.
"It's interesting now as well, the two of them in line for a second Grand Slam, which is something that's incredible to think about. But, after Jamie, it is kind of sad that it's coming to the end of the boys from '09."
The two that remain, as well as Schmidt's other key lieutenants, will be crucial, Bowe believes, in ensuring that weight of expectation does not become a burden on a squad where the experience level is certainly top-heavy.
"They're two huge games to come," he said. "With Scotland having won against England, their tails are up and it's always an enormous thing to go over and win in Twickenham. But if they get to that last game with a Grand Slam on the line, I think they could go over there and cause a big upset against England.
"When you have the spine, Rory, CJ (Stander), Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Kearney, these are guys who have won big games, won trophies, they know what it takes to pull things out."
While the players will be aware of what's at stake against Scotland, and whether they win or lose this week against England on St Patrick's Day a week later, Bowe is sure the squad can insulate themselves to the increasing outside hype.
"It is weird. It was so long since Ireland had won a Grand Slam and we were all fully aware of it," he said.
"When you're in that bubble, you don't think too much about it. We were a bit younger in '09. There was a Six Nations on the line, there was a Grand Slam to be won, but the craic and the messing, it was the same as usual, even better even.
"The tournament, we were more relaxed as it went, certainly the night before the Wales game even.
"Joe likes to nullify the outside influence, to focus on the here and now. They'll all know what's at stake but Joe will have them well and truly locked in."
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