With Ireland’s Six Nations campaign off to a flying start, one Ulsterman is chomping at the bit to be back involved. Tommy Bowe talks injuries, shoes, and lining out for the Lions with Shane Hannon
Tommy Bowe made his senior rugby debut for Ireland in the 55-6 trouncing of USA at Lansdowne Road in the 2004 Autumn Internationals. The then 20-year-old Bowe even scored a second-half try, and although that try and game have now likely faded from the memory of even the most ardent Ireland fan, it signalled the start of a flourishing career for the first Monaghan man to play rugby for his country in over 80 years.
Bowe played underage rugby with Monaghan RFC, but with the Farney County not exactly recognised as a rugby stronghold, he went to school in Armagh where he played with the renowned Royal School.
To describe Bowe’s rise in the game as meteoric would be justified. “My A-levels maybe didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I was actually hoping to head off to Scotland or down to Dublin, but luckily, Allen Clarke, who is head of the Ulster Academy, kind of had an eye on me. I think he maybe chatted to my school’s coaches and took me into the Ulster Academy. And then only a year or two later I got my first cap for Ireland.”
Any international sporting star is unlikely to forget the day they first line out for their country. Tommy Bowe is no different, and he remarks of that treasured day in November 2004. “That was definitely a moment that will always stand out for me. I grew up watching Ireland in Lansdowne Road. I’d always get schoolboy tickets and my Dad used to take me down when I was 10, 11, 12-years-old, so it was always the dream [to play for Ireland].”
Bowe’s next port of call was south Wales in 2008, where he spent four successful years with the Ospreys. On reflection, the winger comments, “I loved it at the Ospreys. It was a great experience for me, I got on really well with the people over there.”
Bowe won two league titles in his time with the Swansea outfit, and scored a club-record four European Cup tries in one match against Treviso. He remarks that “Whenever I left [Ulster] there was no bad feeling about me leaving, I just wanted to go and experience something different.”
Coming back to play for his home province was always going to be an attractive option for Bowe and in March 2012 that’s what he did, “Home is Belfast and home is Ireland. Ulster are my home club and they put a lot of effort into me in the academy stages and were very keen to get me back.”
Ulster got all the way to the 2011-12 Heineken Cup final without Bowe, and although they were well beaten 42-14 on the day by Leinster, that tournament is high on his own list of priorities. “That’s the one, that’s what I want.
I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a winning Six Nations Irish team and I’ve won the league a couple of times, but the Heineken Cup, to be part of a winning team that you train with day in day out and to have seen Munster and Leinster do it so many times, I’d love to get to that stage.”
With 26 Heineken Cup tries to his name, Bowe currently lies 5th in the competition’s all-time try scorers list, the only Irishmen above him are Shane Horgan and the legendary Brian O’Driscoll.
With O’Driscoll currently taking part in his final Six Nations campaign, Bowe had some impressive things to say about his international teammate. “I think he’s absolutely the greatest ever, having done what he has done so consistently over the years.
“No one can speak highly enough of Brian. He’s the ultimate professional. It always surprises me how someone who has been around for so long can get so up for training sessions, he gets stuck in more than anyone and demands higher standards from everybody around him. That’s the kind of guy you need on your team and he’s going to be a huge loss to Ireland when he does hang up his boots.”
Bowe also speaks very highly of new Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, whose time at the helm has got off to a flying start, “He’s been a real breath of fresh air since he came into the Irish camp. I think that comes with any new coach, they bring in new ideas, new thoughts, and a real air of enthusiasm.”
The Ulsterman also emphasises, “It’s not rocket science what he’s doing, but Joe’s attention to detail really drives the players. The step-up in intensity has been one thing that’s been incredible since he’s come in.”
With 26 tries in his 54 caps to date for Ireland, Bowe has experienced numerous memorable moments in an Irish jersey. However one try in particular stands out for him. “You’d have to think the one against Wales in the Millennium Stadium in that last game [in 2009] was one that I’ll not forget too quickly.”
The win that day propelled Ireland to their first Grand Slam triumph in 61 years, and the fact that Bowe managed to outpace Shane Williams for his crucial score made the moment even sweeter. “I was a teammate of Shane’s at the Ospreys at the time so it was nice to have some bragging rights over him.”
When quizzed on the greatest player he has played against, Williams’ name appears once more. “A nice guy on the pitch and a nice guy off the pitch. He’s a player I’ve always looked up to. A totally different player to me: small, quick, nimble. He’s the type of player I dread playing against.”
Without doubt the greatest honour that can be bestowed upon a rugby player from Britain and Ireland is a call-up to the Lions squad, and Bowe has experienced two tours. “Playing for Ireland was always my dream, always my goal, something that from a young age I’d always dreamt of. Playing for the Lions was something beyond that.”
Bowe was a crucial figure in the Lions’ test series victory last summer, the first series win for the touring party since 1997. “The first time I got selected to go on the Lions tour it just felt surreal. To actually go and put on the red jersey in my first test match and then go and win a series like we did in the summer was just something else.”
Bowe actually broke a metacarpal bone in his hand against the Queensland Reds in 2013 and was pretty much told his tour was over. But a Lazarus-like recovery saw him back in training within two weeks and very much part of that magnificent Lions series victory.
Undoubtedly diet and nutrition is crucial in any sport, and this aspect is one Bowe is himself keenly aware of. He is a recognised Subway ‘Famous-Fan’ and while the commercials may be described as cheesy at best, the message behind them is key. “When Subway came and approached me about it they were bringing out new, healthy subs and I thought it was a natural fit; a sportsperson promoting healthy eating.”
Diet is paramount in any sport, and rugby is no exception. “They say rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes and it really is, and diet is a massive part of that. We have a full-time nutritionist for Ireland and Ulster who are constantly asking us about our diets. We have to weigh in a couple times a week, we get our skin folds taken every couple of weeks. There’s no hiding place unfortunately if you have a big Christmas.”
Off the pitch, Bowe feels it is essential to keep himself occupied with non-rugby business. He currently has very popular shoe (Lloyd and Pryce) and clothes (XV Kings) collections available for purchase, but what inspired him to get involved in the world of fashion?
“It was through a friend of mine who knew the guys who run Shoe City in Castleblayney. I knew that they were wanting to launch a new shoe range and that they wanted to have a sportsperson involved in it. And being from Monaghan they thought I’d be an obvious fit.”
Bowe reveals that so far the venture has paid dividends. “They asked me to come on board and I didn’t know much about shoes, but we’ve gone through our third year now and things have been going really well. The shoes are flying, people are really starting to go into shops looking for them and stuff so it’s great.”
The business side of the endeavour in particular has caught Bowe’s attention. “The boys are very talented and they work very hard. For me it’s been a real insight because with the training and everything we do it’s nice to have something to take your mind off the rugby and it’s something I’ve found really enjoyable.”
Bowe himself has a Construction Engineering degree from the University of Ulster, Jordanstown and just recently the same institution decided to award him an honorary Doctor of Science degree (DSc) for his contribution to sport. “To be able to add a doctorate onto the end of that will be something else. ‘Dr Tommy Bowe.’ My family and everyone I’ve told about that have been in stitches.”
Bowe is in good company for next summer’s graduations too. “When you hear the list of people I’m along with, the likes of A.P. McCoy, I’m obviously honoured to be selected and I’m looking forward to receiving it.”
Bowe has been sidelined since November with a groin injury picked up in Ireland’s agonising defeat to the All Blacks. “With about 20 minutes to go I could just feel I’d torn something. Then I went and got it scanned and I had a tear in the top of my adductor and the bottom of my stomach muscles too.”
He turns 30-years-old on the day Ireland play England at Twickenham, but won’t be back in action for Ireland on the day. “Hopefully I’ll be back playing that weekend, but I’ll need a few games under my belt before I’m back playing for Ireland again.”
Bowe has fond memories of Twickenham as he scored two tries there in February 2010 as Ireland famously beat the English 20-16 and he went on to receive the Six Nations Player of the Championship award.
Looking ahead to the future, Bowe asserts, “I just want to get a few years now injury-free again. I was very lucky the first eight years of my career with no injuries. I pretty much played week after week. The last two years have been so tough. I see my body as still in decent enough condition and I’d hope to have another four or five years, all going well.”
Beyond that he explains, “I think I’d like to get into a business of some sort. With the shoes and clothes it’s given me a real insight into how the business world works. When hanging up your boots you need something to really dig your teeth into, because there’s nothing that can replace the adrenaline rush of running out onto a pitch.” Here’s hoping Tommy Bowe is running out onto pitches in a green jersey for many more years to come.