Tommy Bowe's Ireland call still on hold
Tommy Bowe's brilliant Ulster comeback from injury hasn't been enough to earn inclusion in Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's squad for Saturday's Six Nations clash with Italy in Dublin.
Bowe (30) marked his return to action for the first time in three months with a two-try reminder of just how good he is in Ulster's Pro12 38-8 romp on Friday over Newport Gwent Dragons.
You don't get to be a Test winger for the British and Irish Lions on successive tours unless you are something special and Bowe's first-half double against the Dragons underlined the fact he still has the X-factor and remains Irish rugby's best, most exciting and prolific finisher bar none.
But his Ireland return will have to wait as his phased return continues at Ravenhill.
Seven Ulster players have made the 33-man squad from which Schmidt will name his match-day 23 to face Italy at the Aviva (2.30pm).
An update from the Irish party's Carton House training camp said Bowe had "tightened up after 30 minutes on Friday but finished the half as planned and will continue to follow a staged return-to-play programme."
Despite his impressive run-out following a lengthy stint on the sidelines with a groin tear picked up playing for Ireland against the All Blacks in November, Bowe himself had been realistic enough to admit that he was unlikely to get an immediate recall.
Speaking after Friday night's match he said: "I always knew I'd have to have game-time if I ever wanted to get myself back into the Ireland set-up. I think I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that I'm probably going to miss this one, unfortunately."
Ulster centre Luke Marshall has been left out on this occasion after suffering a head injury on Friday night.
The seven Ulster players in the mix are forwards Rory Best, Robbie Diack, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry and backs Darren Cave, Paddy Jackson and Andrew Trimble.
With Munster's Felix Jones ruled out by a knee injury his provincial colleague Simon Zebo has been drafted in. Tommy O'Donnell, the Munster back row forward, is out after suffering a stinger, and not having had any rest time since the start of the season Leinster scrum-half Isaac Boss is omitted, too.
For Bowe, the rehab continues after the groin tear he describes as "the most frustrating injury I've ever had".
And he revealed it is one which is going to require careful and constant management. Referring to two of his earlier problems, both of which required surgery, he said: "With my hand (summer/autumn 2013) and with my knee (December 2012/April 2013) I knew that the screws were in it and that it was as strong, if not stronger, than it ever was before.
"But when you have a ligament tear or a tendon tear you just have to give them time and you can never put a definite return date on it. As many times as I tried to come back and hoped that I would be good to come back it just kept setting me backwards.
"I've had to set a really tough, rigorous re-hab programme that I've stuck to religiously over the last six weeks and luckily that seems to have worked.
"I'm back in training this week. Unfortunately with this injury it's just something I'm going to have to take care of and be careful with for the rest of the season.
"It's a huge amount of work with the physios and the conditioning staff who have been excellent to get me back onto the pitch.
"Unfortunately it's just something I'm going to have to keep on top of – my rehab – and keep stepping up the conditioning. I was blowing even after one half there so there's a bit more conditioning to be done. I haven't played in three months so there's still a lot to be done before the next match."
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe was delighted to have been able to include the flying wing for the first time since the October 25 win over Cardiff Blues in Belfast. He said: "It was great to see Tommy back and scoring two tries which is always a positive sign."
The Kiwi was happy, too, with his side's much-improved performance following laboured wins over Ospreys and Treviso in each of their previous two outings. As ever, though, his praise was not without qualification.
"Having lauded Ulster's first-half display which saw them turn round leading 31-3, with a bonus point, banked he said: "I was a bit disappointed we couldn't carry it on; we left a couple of tries out there."
Squad: Forwards: Rory Best (Ulster), Sean Cronin (Leinster), Robbie Diack (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Chris Henry (Ulster), David Kilcoyne (Munster), Mike McCarthy (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Martin Moore (Leinster), Jordi Murphy (Leinster), Paul O'Connell (Munster), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Mike Ross (Leinster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster), Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Richardt Strauss (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster). Backs: Darren Cave (Ulster), Gordon D'Arcy (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Paddy Jackson (Ulster), David Kearney (Leinster), Rob Kearney (Leinster), Ian Madigan (Leinster), Fergus McFadden (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Jonathan Sexton (Racing Metro 92), Andrew Trimble (Ulster), Simon Zebo (Munster)