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Tommy Bowe is raring to go after taking stock

By Jonathan Bradley

All season, and arguably longer, there's only been one winger grabbing the headlines at Kingspan Stadium.

Jacob Stockdale, fresh from three tries in two Autumn Internationals last month, has been the most talked about man in Irish rugby lately, with one of the many platitudes heaped upon him being that he looks like the 'next Tommy Bowe'.

A two-tour Lion, and one with 69 Ireland caps to boot, there are certainly worse people to whom the 21-year-old could find himself compared, but there remains one issue.

The genuine article still feels there's plenty more rugby left in the tank. Having endured a run of injury misfortune that would have had less determined men hanging up the boots, Bowe admits there were times he thought this season would be his last.

Multiple knee surgeries, a broken foot and a troublesome groin all had taken their toll in recent years and, with his IRFU contract ending in the summer of 2018, the Monaghan man had considered whether it would be best to call time on his stellar career.

But, having featured in 10 games already this campaign, and finally getting an injury free run, the 33-year-old believes he can extend his playing days into the years to come.

"If you had asked me last year, I maybe would have been thinking 'ah jeez, I don't know if I can'," he admitted ahead of tonight's trip to Dragons (7.35pm kick-off).

"But the way my body feels now, I feel great. I'd love to keep going.

"I've had my share of injuries the last few years, and that makes you question, but the way things are at the minute if I can keep pushing hard, keep competing with the young fellas, I don't want to give up just yet, no.

"I'm really enjoying my rugby. The body feels good and just to have that consistency again of playing week on week. I'm enjoying training, I'm playing with a smile on my face.

"I maybe look a bit fed up if the ball isn't coming my way but that shows that I'm greedy, that I'm enjoying it.

"Hopefully I can keep that up with this big block of games coming up."

As Bowe alludes, tonight's trip to Newport marks the beginning of what will be a particularly key period in the Ulstermen's season.

In their past two Guinness PRO14 games, nine points have been banked but, given the opposition - Southern Kings and Benetton - the dramatic nature of the late escapes required have been concerning.

Struggling to beat the lesser lights of the league does not bode well ahead of a fixture slate that, after tonight, contains nothing but European clashes and interpros until February.

Bowe does not shy away from the notion that performances must improve, and quickly.

"So far this season we're going okay in the league," he said without sounding overly impressed. "We're happy with where we're at, and we have played some tough games, but this block is going to really test us and show how good we are, show where we are.

"We're going to have to be much more clinical, the work we did in training last week and this week already, we are putting ourselves under pressure and you know we are really ramping it up at the minute and it's starting to come."

While a certain amount of teething problems were to be expected given the change in coaching structure - Les Kiss brought in Jono Gibbes, Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon over the summer to replace the outgoing Neil Doak and Allen Clarke - Ulster's second month and a half of the season was less convincing than the first, with Bowe aware that now is a period when only firing on all cylinders will suffice.

"The new coaches have come in, they have mixed things up a little bit and changed patterns of play, so it wasn't going to come straight away," he conceded. "In that first block we were very rusty but in this block we really need to get it sorted and get our stuff together.

"It's a case of cutting out those small mistakes that are killing us."

And that starts tonight at Rodney Parade. While Dragons have continued to struggle for results, even under the reinvigorating stewardship of Bernard Jackman, it is a ground where Ulster have been susceptible to a hiccup in the past, and Bowe has warned that the mentality must be right.

"It's a great atmosphere whenever you go there, but if you go over there and you're not in the right frame of mind, you don't want to be there, they'll make it very difficult for you," he said.

"We're disappointed with last weekend's performance so, heading into Europe the following weekend, we need to step it up another level."

Dragons are a hard side to read given their lack of home games this season, but with the likes of Stuart McCloskey and Sean Reidy back in his starting line-up, Les Kiss will still be expecting his side to return to Belfast with a third straight win. Should it come without late heroics, all the better.

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