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'We don't have a full trophy cabinet. I don't want to end my career having not won anything in a decade'

Fit-again Tommy Bowe is enjoying a new lease of life as the centre of attention at Ulster and is determined to help the province end their 11-year trophy drought.

‘The last time I was here, I was wearing the space boot. It’s good to speak to you when I’m not actually injured.’

Tommy Bowe Tommy Bowe was in Dublin yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

TOMMY BOWE HAS a spring in his step, and understandably so too. Even through those painstaking days, when so many questioned whether he’d ever be able to resurrect a career plagued by injury, a steely determination remained. Nothing was going to get the better of him — and now he has a reason to smile again.

Five months ago, he sat in the Dylan Hotel — a five-star boutique hotel in Ballsbridge — having had a metal plate inserted in his left ankle to stablise a broken fibula. He had slipped back to square one again after the cruelest of setbacks. More agony, but when others had already written his rugby obituary, Bowe insisted — swore — that he would be back, and he would return fitter and stronger than ever.

Yesterday, he sat in the same surroundings as that morning in April, only this time there was no space boot or limited mobility. There was no talk of rehabilitation programmes or questions about matches he only had a superficial interest in. Bowe is back and enjoying a new lease of life, playing rugby again. It’s probably a little premature, and possibly ill-judged, to describe it as a second coming, but at the age of 33, it’s warming to see him back in the white of Ulster after a luckless couple of years.

“I’m enjoying myself,” he says. “I feel good and feel fit.”

An agonising 24 months — during which he was sidelined with cruciate ligament damage to his knee and that ankle break — has re-energised Bowe. The mental fatigue can so often be more wearing than the physical damage, yet his positivity has always been remarkably unbreakable.

With last season cut frustratingly short after just 14 appearances, Bowe began the 12-week road to recovery infused with the purposeful belief that the layoff would allow him a full run at pre-season. Wipe the slate clean, and start again in July. And so he did, taking time off to recharge the batteries before working as hard as ever in the gym over the summer months.

“With the broken fibula, I knew it was just a broken bone. It wasn’t sore at the time, but I heard it crack,” he said, when asked if he ever questioned whether he’d get back.

“I had to get a plate in it, there was debate whether I got a plate or not with the surgeon. We decided to get the plate and once that’s in, I know it’s solid. So from my ankle and fibula part of view, I wasn’t too worried about it.

Tommy Bowe goes off injured Bowe was stretchered off after breaking a bone in his ankle in the Six Nations game against Wales. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Obviously being out for 11 months with my knee, there was always that worry, ‘what the hell, is this ever going to get better,’ but I think coming into that new year last year I felt that I was really starting to find my form, I wasn’t having to do all the exercise and warm-ups that I needed to try and get myself going, and I actually felt really good.

“I suppose that time off, being injured after March, I got maybe eight weeks to stick to upper body and build that rehab back, strengthen my knee that bit more. So, going into pre-season this year I felt in a really good place.

“I had done the pre-hab and stuff leading up to pre-season that I needed, so whenever I was able to do pre-season I was able to do the double-day sessions, I was able to do all the stuff that all the younger lads were doing, and everything I’d been doing over the last couple of years. Knowing I can still do it and keep going with them is a real confidence booster.”

As the weeks progressed, Bowe’s gradual return gathered momentum and incremental improvements in speed and strength began to show on the training pitch. Steady progress, but better than none at all.

Shortly after his arrival as Ulster’s new backs coach, as part of Les Kiss’ management reshuffle, Dwayne Peel suggested Bowe switch back inside to centre rather than the wing.

The former Welsh scrum-half had seen Bowe’s devastating ability in midfield up close during the latter’s time with Ospreys, and having slotted into the number 13 position for the pre-season games against Wasps and Northampton, that’s where he started in the opening two rounds of the Guinness Pro14.

Bowe marked his first competitive game since the Six Nations clash against Wales with a try in Ulster’s bonus point win over the Cheetahs, a moment he admitted was particularly special after such a long time out.

“It’s giving me a few flashbacks,” he said of playing in the centre again. “I played there for the Barbarians against Fiji last season but apart from that it’s been a couple of years. In my first year or two with Ulster I got a few games there but it was really back in the Ospreys days that (I played there more regularly).

Tommy Bowe The Monaghan native got a full pre-season under his belt. Source: Presseye/Stephen Hamilton/INPHO

“I enjoying getting a little bit more involved in the game and with strength in depth that we have all over the backline it’s good to show that I can play in a few positions. I am there to try and help them out and be a bit of a mature head in the middle of the backline, with Stuart McCloskey as my (midfield) partner.”

And it’s something Bowe looks at as a potentially permanent switch, rather than anything temporary while Kiss waits for Luke Marshall, Jared Payne, Jacob Stockdale and Darren Cave to return to the fold.

“I’d like to give it a good go, to get a good run of a couple of more games and grow into the position. Even at the weekend [against Treviso], a simple skip pass to 15, and your man went outside me; that’s just a little bit of rustiness getting my timing right. So small things like that take a little bit of adjusting to.

“I am winger predominantly, I have been playing wing most of my career, I enjoy the wing, I know the wing inside out. From a point of view of speed I feel like I have a really good pre-season under my belt. I hit the top speed that I have hit in four years during that Cheetahs game. From a speed and acceleration point of view I actually feel good, I feel like I can slot in on the wing or at 13.”

Then comes the inevitable question.

November and the chance to add to 69 international caps.

“I know Joe and Andy Farrell were both at training a few weeks ago, I haven’t really spoken to them, I’ve spoken to Les who passed the message through Joe; it’s the same message, he just wants me to get game time, I haven’t played since March. I’ve four games under my belt.”

But with Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose both potentially set to miss the November series games against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina, the door could suddenly reopen for Bowe. Is there unfinished business in a green shirt?

“I’d love to be involved, of course,” he continues. “I got injured playing for Ireland even if it was only for 40 seconds, my goal is always to represent my country and Ulster, there’s no point playing professional rugby if you’re not going to aim for the top.

“I feel fit, I feel probably as good as I felt in a few years. If that call came, I’d be more than delighted, I know I can do the job.”

For now, however, that job is in the white of Ulster.

The northern province have kickstarted their campaign with back-to-back victories over the Cheetahs and Treviso, but the early encouragement and optimism has somewhat evaporated after the scratchy performance in Italy last week. Ulster are still very much a work in progress.

Tommy Bowe Bowe has started both Pro14 games in the centre. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

Kiss made the decision over the summer to make changes both on and off the field and while there have been some positive signs so far, it has been a case of one step forward, two steps back in the opening two games.

Friday’s clash with defending champions Scarlets will be a real litmus test for Ulster at such an early stage of the season, but everyone around the club knows how essential a fast start is if they are to harbour any hope of ending a trophy drought which stretches back to 2006.

Bowe was the competition’s top try scorer that year as Ulster pipped Leinster to the Celtic League title by a single point, but since then it has been a story of underachievement, near misses and frustration.

The Monaghan native enjoyed personal success with Ospreys, as he helped the Welsh club to two Pro12 titles in 2010 and 2012, but one of the motivating factors behind his decision to return to Ulster five years ago was to help his home province return to those lofty heights. They had just lost the Heineken Cup final but under head coach Mark Anscombe, they were only heading in one direction.

The graph, however, has gone in the opposite direction since. Ulster embarked on their longest unbeaten run — 13 straight wins — at the start of the 2012/13 season but ended it empty-handed as they lost to Leinster in the Pro12 final and were knocked out at the quarter-final stage in Europe.

And it’s now 11 years since Ulster last lifted silverware — a barren run which everyone acknowledges is far too long for a club of their size and stature. But Bowe is back for that very reason. Those dark days on the treatment table when he was inside the bubble but outside the dressing room focused his mind. There is a renewed hunger, and a desire to help Ulster end this hoodoo and lift the cloud hanging over Kingspan Stadium for the last decade.

“Ulster is my home, it’s where my heart is and where I always wanted to go to, and the structure and everything in Ulster is something,” he explained. “We’ve got an incredible fanbase, an incredible stadium, facilities, we’ve got everything.

“Unfortunately we don’t have the silverware. We don’t have the full trophy cabinet. And that’s a regret, you know I don’t want to finish my career having not having won anything in over a decade with Ulster and I’m not going to have that many more years to go and do it.

Tommy Bowe celebrates his try/9/2017 The Ireland international scored on the opening night against Cheetahs. Source: Darren Kidd/INPHO

“We keep saying, ‘yeah, this is our year’ over and over again, and there’s nothing more frustrating. But all we can do is try and get off to a good start in the league and just keep working on the fundamentals that we’ve been working on all through pre-season.

“Someone like Jonno Gibbes coming in provides a real hard edge to the team and that’s something that he’s really worked hard on, and that will definitely help us as the season goes on.”

He adds: ”It would have killed me if I wasn’t there and we went on and won something. You want to be part of teams that win competitions and to play is a great experience but you’re a professional athlete and we all want to be part of winning teams.

“Obviously it’s something I want to do with Ulster and it would have been a huge disappointment if I hadn’t have come back. I couldn’t have not come back from my injury and they went on to win big things. With a lot of the young guys coming through, we will get there and once we break that barrier hopefully it’ll happen a few times. It’s still very early days but there’s a positive mood in the camp at the minute.”

Still early days in Bowe’s comeback and still early days for Ulster this season. Silverware is the primary objective for both, but it’s good just to see him back.

Tommy Bowe was speaking at the launch of Subway’s new two-year sponsorship of Sports for Schools, which is a social enterprise that will be rolled out across Ireland and will bring top athletes into primary schools to encourage children to get fit and active. For more information see www.sportsforschools.org

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