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Zebre defeat has given Ulster a 'new focus' for Connacht clash

 

By Jonathan Bradley

As Ulster's winning run was left in tatters by energetic underdogs Zebre in Parma last week, Tommy Bowe found himself in the same boat as most supporters - that of a frustrated onlooker.

Having appeared in all four of the province's victories to start the campaign, the two-time Lion was granted a watching brief for the shock reverse in the Stadio Lanfranchi, although what was expected to be a weekend of rest and relaxation for the 33-year-old turned into anything but when he sat in front of his TV to see how his team-mates fared in northern Italy.

"As a player, to not be over there and watching it on TV, I was very much like everyone else," said the Monaghan man.

"I felt the disappointment. Having chats with the boys when they got back, they were exactly the same. There was huge disappointment and they were just frustrated with the game.

"The guys who were not there, it was just a case of us trying to pick up the energy levels on Monday morning and picking everybody up again to look forward to a new week.

"But to be honest, I don't think we really needed it, everyone came back disappointed but with a new focus."

For supporters though, it was a loss that carried an eerily familiar feel.

Last season, Les Kiss's men began the season with five straight wins, only to lose to tonight's opponents Connacht in the first week of October.

What was hoped to be merely a temporary surrendering of momentum became a far more substantial problem when the team went on to drop three of the next four, leaving them playing catch-up both domestically and in Europe.

And while any direct comparison would ignore the fact that the side looked wholly more convincing in their early season wins when contrasted to a year ago, Bowe is still determined to ensure history doesn't repeat itself at the Kingspan Stadium tonight (7.35pm kick-off).

"We just have to not let it happen again," said the Irish international who is back in his more familiar wing position this evening.

"It was definitely a blip and very disappointing, but the way we have reacted, certainly in training this week, it's been really good.

"We've put it behind us and we've addressed it, we've looked at it and we've learned from it and we move on.

"If we lose again this week then obviously that's when you start to wonder but I think that's it for us.

"We're at home, it's an inter-pro and we want to win."

That Bowe is brought back into the side for such a crucial game, and indeed with the first foray into Europe now just a week away, is indicative of how he has battled back from his injury plagued seasons.

With Andrew Trimble outside the 23, and Louis Ludik on the bench, it is Ireland's second highest try-scorer who has been handed the number 11 jersey.

It all seems a far cry from the day almost two years ago now when he shredded knee ligaments in the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina.

It had been a long road back to top-level rugby - indeed Bowe would play only once more that season before another six month lay-off - and just as he was finding his feet last year, another injury in the Millennium Stadium stopped him in his tracks.

This time a broken leg only seconds after coming off the bench against Wales in the Six Nations left him facing yet more months spent in the Ulster rehab room, but he now feels his body is back to its best.

"I'm really enjoying my rugby at the minute and having a good pre-season under my belt," he said. "Thankfully my body has felt as good as it has felt for a long time so it means I can give everything in training and in these games.

"Listen, obviously I still want to score more tries but I think I'm there or thereabouts. I'm getting myself in the right positions, but maybe just a pass away. I'm happy to be on the pitch and it's just getting the ball in the hands and the tries will come."

In a position some thought he may never again reclaim when the injuries were at their worst, he admits that being written off in quarters can be used as fuel for a fire he maintains still burns brightly.

"It's always been the same way. It's always the young players coming through, really promising talent," he said.

"I think that players there like myself who have been around for a while, you have to deal with being written off.

"That comes with the territory. But it's nice in that it's something you can use as a bit of a carrot. You can use it as a motivation when you come back from an injury, you keep fighting back."

After last week's mishaps, Ulster will need to do the same tonight.

Bradley's Verdict

Another much changed team as Ulster look to prevent Connacht from gaining a first win in Belfast since 1960. As close to full strength as we have seen this season with the likes of Stuart McCloskey back in harness, the province know how important it is to secure victory in this first inter-pro of the season after the Zebre loss.

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