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'My mind and body are feeling good but I just don't think I can do it any more'

As Tommy Bowe counts down the games until he retires, Ireland’s greatest-ever right winger looks back on an illustrious career.

“I’ve spent most of my career in Belfast,
At first George said I wasn’t very fast,
I eventually found my gears,
Had some incredible years,
But it’s time to tell you – this is my last!”

inpho_01314136 Tommy Bowe will hang up his boots at the end of this season. Source: Inpho/Dan Sheridan

THE COUNTDOWN IS on. Five games to go, maybe six all going well. And that’ll be it for Ireland’s greatest-ever right winger. The boots will be put away, the curtain drawn on a sparkling career. The next chapter awaits. Not long left now.

Tommy Bowe announced in January that this would be his last season and so, after 14 years playing for Ulster and Ireland, he had decided the time was right to bow out. He had known for a while. Pre-season last summer told him. Enough is enough.

It was made official in November. A meeting with Ulster’s rugby operations manager Bryn Cunningham over a contract for next season didn’t last very long. Bowe wasn’t interested. He was happy with his lot and happy to go out on his own terms.

“My body and my mind are in a good place at the moment but I know I’ve pushed myself over the last couple of years through injuries,” Bowe tells The42.

“I’m feeling good but I just don’t think I can do it any more.”

Bowe has pushed his body to the limit, particularly over the last number of years when he was seemingly cursed by injury but still made it his business to get back time and time again.

Agony after agony, but when others had already written his rugby obituary, the Monaghan native insisted — swore — that he would be back, and he would return fitter and stronger than ever.

His decision had already been made by January when his late cameo off the bench in the New Year’s inter-pro against Leinster ended with a broken sternum but maybe, just maybe, that would have been the final straw. At 34, there is only so much you can give physically and mentally.

“There are young fellas, the likes of Jacob Stockdale, at the minute coming through who have shown the quality they are,” he continues.

“For me to be able to compete and get my place alongside those guys is getting harder and harder. Nearly impossible.

“I believe it’s the right decision so there are no second thoughts or regrets. Once I made that decision, it was in the right place in my head. I’m in a good place with it and I’m able to enjoy this last year.”

Enjoy is probably the wrong word at the moment as Ulster’s season continues to lurch from one disaster to another, from one low to another. Confirmation of Jono Gibbes’ summer departure earlier this week just about summed it up.

Self-effacing, as has been his way throughout his career, Bowe is not worried about going out on these terms, but as an Ulsterman through and through, determined to make one last contribution as the northern province desperately try and save another faltering season.

After overcoming that painful injury at the start of January, the winger is now back to full fitness and has made 15 appearances this season, arguably enjoying his best run in a number of seasons after an agonising 24 months, during which he was sidelined with cruciate ligament damage to his knee and then an ankle break.

Ulster’s Tommy Bowe Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It was that injury, sustained at the Millennium Stadium in March 2017, which marked the end of a 69-time capped international career in green. It was another cruel setback for a player who had been plagued by injuries.

Bad luck is one thing, but the appalling misfortune Bowe endured is barely believable. It would have been easy to throw the towel in there and then — but his positivity and mental resolve proved unbreakable. He wasn’t going out like that.

“I’ve been fortunate because the injuries I’ve had over the last couple of years, I could have easily hung up my boots and just said enough is enough. Every time I’ve got injured it has always been a bit of a challenge to me, people might have said ‘oh is that you done?’ and people are always questioning your future.

“I always saw that as a personal challenge to get myself back to where I was. I think most of the time I succeeded in doing that but to now know I can go out with my body in one piece is huge.

“I’ve got so many friends who haven’t been so fortunate, they’ve had to call it a day not realising it was going to be their last game so to be able to plan it is such a fortunate position to be in.

“Getting to enjoy my final games and my family and friends being there to enjoy it with me is amazing and something I really want to savour but at the same time really drive on and help Ulster finish the season strongly. I don’t it to just peter out.”

Whatever happens in the remaining months of the season, Bowe can look back on his career with a great deal of pride and satisfaction. The boy from Emyvale who would go on to represent Ireland 69 times, go on two Lions tours and end it as the leading Pro14 try-scorer of all time.

If you were in any doubt of Bowe’s stellar career and immense contribution in every shirt he has pulled on, the numbers go some way to telling the story. 30 international tries leaves him second only behind a certain Brian O’Driscoll in green, and his 62 tries in 171 Ulster games is only bettered by team-mate Andrew Trimble.

Not to mention his four years in Wales, where he helped Ospreys win the Pro12 in 2010 and ended his sojourn at the Liberty Stadium with 29 tries in 66 appearances, while his 29 European scores leaves him fourth on that all-time list and his 10 outings in a Lions shirt yielded five tries.

Tommy Bowe Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A brilliant strike rate sustained over 14 years, but Bowe will be remembered most for 2009, when he set Ireland on their way to the Grand Slam with that iconic catch on the run from Ronan O’Gara’s cross-field kick in Cardiff.

“They are all special memories,” he smiles. “Six Nations, Grand Slams, the Pro12 league with the Ospreys and then to win a Lions series. There are all so, so special and memories I will always look back on with great fondness.

“But my first cap for Ireland, that’s what will always stand out. I didn’t go the traditional route, I wasn’t part of the Ireland schools team, I wasn’t in the academy. I almost fell through the back door a bit and when I was a young fella the dream of playing for Ireland had gone for me and I was going off to university in somewhere like Scotland.

“But the way it worked out and getting my first cap in the old Lansdowne Road against the USA in 2004. For my family, it was such a big, big occasion and a day I still remember so well.

“It will always be the highlight of my career and to think I was fortunate enough to play 69 times for Ireland, and to have won some games, is just unbelievable. I don’t think anything can surpass your first cap especially because there were so many days I thought it was never going to happen.”

Some legacy.

Now it’s just about enjoying and savouring every last moment of what’s left.

“I want to be able to finish on a high, I want us to be playing some good rugby and want to be playing good rugby myself,” he explains. ”It is just a bit frustrating at the minute as I want to find that form and for the team to be playing exciting, good rugby.

“It’s a case of going out there and winning first and foremost as there are bigger things than me and the end of my career. It’s very important we’re trying to get into the top three. Make sure we’re in Europe next year. The bigger picture is more important.”

Bowe has always been good at looking at the bigger picture, particularly when it came to life outside rugby.

His time on the sidelines over the last two years means he’s had plenty of time to think about the future and life after rugby.

He’s always had interests away from the game with his own clothing and shoe line and a postgraduate diploma in Business through the University of London, as well as a construction engineering degree, gives him plenty of options going forward. There’s also a burgeoning career in TV after his presenting debut on Getaways.

But first and foremost is his family — his wife, Lucy, and young daughter, Emma.

“I’ve always tried to keep myself busy outside of rugby to keep other interests but that was to keep the rugby fresh for me as well and to keep my mind active. When I do hang up my boots, it’s not going to be plain sailing, absolutely not, as you’re going to go from a team environment where you know where you have to be every day, what I have to wear and what I have to eat. The calendar is set out for you, you’re so well looked after.

inpho_01314143

“I will have other bits and pieces to get involved in which will keep me busy but it’s trying to find that structure to your life and also the adrenaline rush of running out onto the pitch. There are a lot of things there that are going to be interesting for me and how I’ll cope with them, hopefully I’ll be fine.

“The fact I can do it on my own terms might make it that bit easier but at the same time I’m sure there will be that adjustment period. I’m trying to get myself set for that but I’m sure it’s not going to be as easy as I would like it to be. Fingers crossed it goes well.”

In that regard, Bowe doesn’t see himself going into coaching. He feels he needs a new challenge, a fresh start.

“I can’t see myself coaching,” he admits. “But never say never I suppose. Rugby has been such a big part of my life for the last 15/20 years so it would be a shame not to be involved in some form but in what form, I’m not too sure at the moment.

“I’m looking for a new challenge, for something different that’s going to really focus me. I think I need that — to learn a new trade — because I’m always someone who needed to be challenged and to push myself.”

That’s all to come down the line, and while Bowe has been preparing for the day he walks off the pitch for the last time, his focus is very much on finishing an illustrious career strongly and with every intention of hauling Ulster out of the nadir they’re currently in.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate with my career. I know I have, I appreciate everything. I’ve had some incredible memories, some great days and you’ve got to just remember that and keep playing with a smile on your face.

“It’s a big few weeks ahead for us as we know our season is on the line but we’re working hard to do so and hopefully we’ll see the results turn quickly.”

Cardiff, Edinburgh, Ospreys, Glasgow and Munster. The countdown is on.

“The final few games will be special, they’ll be poignant. I want to play in them all, in front of the home crowd and enjoy every minute of it. It’s a bit surreal, a bit weird to be honest. But it’s a case of just getting on with it and not letting it cloud my mind too much.

“Enjoy every minute you’ve got left and give everything you’ve got left in the tank.”

Tommy Bowe this week launched Subway and Club Zero’s ‘Tasty Trip Down Under’ campaign, which is an in store promotion offering Subway customers throughout the country the chance to win a trip to Australia if they use their Subcard when purchasing a sub in Subway stores nationwide. 

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Ryan Bailey

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