Tommy Bowe: 'Unfortunately, this is the situation with Ulster. We’re the nearly men'

Ulster’s season ended in disappointment last Saturday in Cape Town.

John Cooney dejected after Ulster's defeat.
John Cooney dejected after Ulster's defeat.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

TOMMY BOWE HAS said a lack of game management was a major contributing factor in Ulster’s heartbreaking semi-final defeat to the Stormers at Cape Town Stadium last Saturday.

15-10 in front heading into stoppage-time, Dan McFarland’s northern province were on course to welcome the Bulls to Belfast in this weekend’s inaugural URC decider. Their South African rivals continued to knock on the door, however, and a Mannie Libbok conversion to Warrick Gelant’s 85th minute try ultimately denied Ulster at the death.

This was a result that brought back some painful memories for Bowe. Although he won a Celtic League during his first spell at the province (2003-2008), the Monaghan man suffered a number of agonising knockout losses following his return to the province in 2012.

“Unfortunately, this is the situation with Ulster. We’re the nearly men. You think of 2013, 2014, 2015. We were so close on a number of occasions, but just couldn’t get over the line. There comes a time when you get to semi-finals and finals when you have to break that duck. To think that Ulster have not won a trophy since 2006 and the longer this goes on, the more difficult it is becoming,” acknowledged Bowe, who retired from professional rugby in 2018.

“I was heartbroken for the players, they put everything that they could into it, but I think it comes down to game management and this has been a problem for Ulster all season. Even going into the last couple of seasons. Game management is what it takes. Unfortunately from Ulster’s point of view, they didn’t score in the second half. They turned over the ball in the 78th minute.

“If they had held onto that ball, went through the phases and just saw the game out… Unfortunately, they kicked it away and that’s where it comes down to real leadership and people in the right areas of the pitch who make those big calls.”

james-hume-dejected-after-the-game A dejected James Hume after Ulster's defeat. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

In the days that have followed their defeat to the Stormers, local opinion has been split over how the 2021/22 season should be viewed from an Ulster perspective.

While some have applied the ‘same old Ulster’ mantra to last weekend’s two-point reversal (17-15), there are others who look upon it as a campaign of progression for a relatively youthful squad.

From Bowe’s point of view, he can see both sides of the argument.

“To lose in the semi-final the way we did, it’s heartbreaking, but there are a lot of positives. We beat Leinster home and away this year, which is something we haven’t done in a long time. They are ticking a lot of boxes. We are playing some really exciting rugby and there are a lot of young guys getting a lot of match minutes, which is only going to help them going forward.

“But we just couldn’t get ourselves over the line. That’s the difference between the likes of a Leinster. Whenever the going gets tough and whenever it’s on the line, generally they have the likes of a Johnny Sexton or players who are just ingrained into doing the right things at the right time.

“Unfortunately that didn’t work for Leinster last weekend and it certainly didn’t work for Ulster either. They’re going to have to get that experience and come back stronger from it. It is very, very frustrating for supporters and for the players as well.”

While an Irish man won’t be lifting the URC trophy this Saturday when the Bulls and the Stormers lock horns in Cape Town, one of Bowe’s former team-mates is hoping to do so. In his final two years as a player, the 2009 Grand Slam winner shared an Ulster dressing room with Marcell Coetzee.

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The Springbok international remained in Belfast until last summer, at which point he returned to South Africa to join forces with Jake White’s Bulls. Having suffered at their hands on a number of occasions in the white of Ulster, Coetzee played a captain’s role in the RDS last Friday as his current club overcame Leinster with a single point to spare (27-26).

Even though the early part of his time at Ulster was curtailed by a recurring knee problem, Bowe was never in any doubt as to the back-row’s quality.

“It would have been brilliant to see Marcell coming back to Belfast, it would have been a nice one. Because I know he really enjoyed it in Belfast. He did have quite a few injuries, but I played a lot of matches beside him as well. It’s hard to put into words how good of an influence he is around the squad as well.

“We’ve seen the impact that he has and his ball-carrying ability, but he’s actually a real likeable guy. A guy who brings all of the squad together and I think he has been a massive part of that Bulls squad. You could see why Jake White was so, so keen to bring him back to Pretoria.

“Couldn’t speak more highly of Marcell. A great, great guy. I probably spent more time in the injury group with him and he was as good fun in the gym as he was on the pitch!” Bowe added.

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