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'I can't put my finger on it but we need to turn things around as our season is on the line'

Tommy Bowe is desperate to help Ulster finish the season strongly before he retires.

Bowe has urged his Ulster team-mates to turn things around and salvage the province's season.
Bowe has urged his Ulster team-mates to turn things around and salvage the province's season.
Image: David Fitzgerald

AS ULSTER’S SEASON descends deeper into a nadir, Tommy Bowe admits he struggles to identify the reasons why it has gone so drastically downhill after a relatively encouraging start.

In the 12 years since the province’s last piece of silverware, there have been countless false downs and disappointing seasons but no more so than the current campaign, which has lurched from one disaster to another.

A limp defeat to Wasps at the start of January ended Ulster’s European interest and ultimately proved to be the final straw in Les Kiss’ trophy-less three-year tenure, but since the Australian’s departure results have continued to slide under Jono Gibbes.

Ulster now sit fourth in Pro14 Conference B, five points behind Edinburgh, and are in real danger of missing out on a Champions Cup berth for next season, following recent reversals to Edinburgh and Scarlets.

To compound matters further, Gibbes announced last week that he would be heading back to Australia at the end of the campaign due to family reasons, adding to the disarray in Belfast and storm clouds hanging over Kingspan Stadium.

With just five games remaining to save their season, Ulster are facing into a make-or-break block of fixtures and Bowe says the players are fully aware of the severity of the situation they find themselves in.

“It’s a couple of big games ahead for us as we know our season is on the line at the minute,” the winger says. “We need to really turn things around over the next few weeks and start getting results.”

Easier said than done, particularly when matters both on and off the field are so bad the province’s CEO, Shane Logan, felt the need to issue a lengthy update on what he described as a ‘perfect storm’ at the club.

After beginning the campaign with six wins from their first seven games, and three out of four in their Champions Cup pool, there was real hope that this was the season Ulster could achieve consistency and mount a genuine challenge for silverware.

But results nose-dived so dramatically that Kiss’ position became untenable and those above him — notably operations manager Bryn Cunningham and Logan — have been forced to defend the way the club has been run.

Jono Gibbes and Les Kiss arrive Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Firstly, it was announced that All Black Charles Piutau would be leaving for Bristol in the summer, and then Springbok Marcell Coetzee returned home for season-ending surgery. Factor in the enforced absence of Jared Payne through headaches and that perfect storm has been brewing for a while.

Then there’s been the contract situation with Rory Best and Iain Henderson, the Stephen Donald fiasco and, to cap it all off, the sacking of Kiss followed by the abrupt departure of his successor as head coach.

Ulster’s season has been unravelling at a rate of knots, but are we really surprised?

“I felt it was going to be a really good year for us,” Bowe continues. “Unfortunately it hasn’t turned out like that and it’s really frustrating.

“I can’t put my finger on it. Les has obviously left but you can’t really blame Les for it. We’ve played some good rugby, we’ve got a really talented squad of players but we’re just struggling to find that form to get us winning games and putting a few back-to-back strong performances together.

“I probably get more frustrated as I want to be winning these games and go out with good memories.”

Bowe, of course, is entering the final stretch of his 14-year career but despite all his success with Ospreys, Ireland and the Lions, the Monaghan native has been left frustrated by a lack of silverware with Ulster.

His career won’t end in fairytale fashion either but the 69-time capped Ireland international is determined to help Ulster finish the season strongly and at least secure Champions Cup rugby next season.

“I want to finish on a high and the way we’re going at the minute, we need to start turning things around,” he adds.

0134 Subway Tast Trip Down Under Tommy Bowe and Sean O'Brien teamed up to launch an exclusive competition offering rugby fans the chance of winning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia by scanning their Subcard at participating Subway stores.

“Since I’ve announced it [retirement], going out on a high has been on my mind and I want to help Ulster do as well as we can. I want to make the most out of what’s left.

“It’s not about me retiring or getting a send off, there are far more important things and that’s making sure we start winning and get into Europe for next season.”

Time is running out, both for Ulster in their bid to salvage something from a calamitous campaign and for Bowe, with the Pro14 now entering the business end of proceedings.

The northern province travel to Cardiff on 24 March and then travel to Murrayfield to face Edinburgh a week later — that fixture is already shaping up to be a seismic one.

“It’s time we turned it around. Our season is now on the line,” Bowe declares.

‘I would never have thought it would be possible. I would have said, ‘Absolutely not”

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Ryan Bailey

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