Tommy Bowe: ‘What did I do? Well I used to play rugby’

‘The End Game’, is Tommy Bowe’s candid attempt to come to terms with a rugby life that is over

After 15 years representing Ulster and Ireland in rugby, Tommy Bowe, a gifted wing, is retiring from the sport. In this documentary he’s ready to look back. Video: RTE One

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What chance does a winger ever get to reflect? In rugby, the position is all anticipation, speed and surge; they intercept and break free. To be a professional involves ceaseless training, performing and recuperating.

Now, after 15 years representing Ulster and Ireland in rugby, Tommy Bowe, a gifted wing, is retiring from the sport. He’s ready to look back.

Tommy Bowe – The End Game (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) is an uncommonly candid attempt for a young man to come to terms with a life that, as he knew it, is over. “That’s going to take a bit of getting used to,” Bowe admits early to the camera. “When someone asks you what do you do? Well, I used to play rugby.”

Making Bowe the presenter of this documentary, rather than its subject, the show might strike you as an audition piece for his next act, as a media figure, perhaps.

But the man makes for a very sincere enquirer, speaking to other retired Irish sports stars about their respective exits from the field as though in training for a new, unfathomable stage of life.

Some are refreshingly frank, such as the jockey AP McCoy, who describes a sports star’s predicament of professional restlessness: “I don’t know if in 20 years of riding I was ever content.”

We hear from a bleaker, dissatisfied Conor Ryan, whose GAA career ended before he was ready: “I still feel that I didn’t prove myself.”

Bowe, a genial, attentive presence, leans into such answers – the man really wants to know – hoping his career with Ulster will end on a high, even as his final matches come with pummelling, surprising losses.

Directors JJ Rolfe and Owen McArdle are blessed with such touching honesty, and the sort of openness that allows for a fascinatingly humble interview with his parents.

That makes the documentary’s decision to ignore the events then roiling Ulster rugby – the rape trial of Bowe’s Ireland and Ulster teammates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, both acquitted and later discharged from their contracts – feel like the elephant on the pitch.

The most interesting thing about Bowe’s predicament, after all, is his attempt to reconcile what’s going on the pitch with what’s going on in his head.

To listen to an unguarded Paul McGrath, the lot of the retired sports star is to feel haunted by it. “I wake up sometimes thinking I have to find my boots,” says the soccer player, 20 years later. “I’ve got a game to play!”

Bowe, however, wants a fitting ending, and it’s telling how fascinated he is with Dervla O’Rourke, our Olympian hurdler, who quit the sport on her own terms and now looks back without regrets.

Like a gambler hoping to end on a jackpot, Bowe holds on too long: after a crucial assist and a spirit-raising win against Glasgow, his “final final game” resolves in 24-24 against Munster. It is hardly the last you have heard from Bowe, too charming and genuine to stay hidden, but he is downbeat nonetheless. “No, my time is up,” he says. “And I think I’m quite content in knowing that.”

A life in sport becomes so fixated with winning and losing, it can be hard to recognise the small mercies it affords.

Let’s just call it a draw.

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