Many strings one Bowe
EAT YOUR GREENS:Tommy Bowe has it all stitched up. A stellar rugby career with Ireland and the Ospreys, an endorsement deal with a Monaghan-based shoe company, regular work for charity Bóthar – plus, writes GERRY THORNLEY, he always gets his five a day
THE SUN IS SHINING brilliantly in the neatly manicured rear garden of the Merrion Hotel, where Tommy Bowe is enjoying a day off from his job with the Ospreys in Wales. This is how all interviews should be – away from the maddening crowds of fellow journalists, team-mates and press officers.
You get the impression, however, that Bowe happily gives of his time. Not only is he a multi-decorated, high-achieving player in a golden age of Irish rugby, he is innately easygoing and good-humoured.
He doesn’t milk his popularity dry. Based in Swansea, his sorties here allow him to promote his profile while enjoying relative anonymity in Wales. It’s a good balance, and he is selective about his product endorsements, mixing these with Bóthar’s charity work in Africa.
This flying visit is to promote Bord Bia’s Best is Fresh campaign, which is another subject close to his heart – food. Bord Bia is trying to educate Irish people on seasonal fruit and vegetables, which has the combined effect of promoting healthier eating and, of course, promoting Irish produce. Bowe will be writing a monthly blog on a supporting website, bestinseason.ie.
He is clearly well versed: “There’s an abundance of produce here for us and, you know, we are a bit ignorant using it. It’s just a case of trying to encourage people to have their five a day.”
He cites the example of Ireland team-mate Donncha O’Callaghan. “Donncha takes a bunch of grapes into the cinema with him . . . rather than taking sweets. He’ll probably kill me for saying that,” Bowe chuckles.
How it’s changed, changed utterly. Bowe didn’t crack the underage set-up, not even making the Ulster schools side, and as a player with Queen’s University he enjoyed life as a student in Jordanstown, completing a degree in construction engineering and management – it seemed a good idea at the time. “Hopefully I won’t have to hang up my boots too soon,” he quips.
On breaking into the Ulster academy, he recalls having to fill in forms itemising his daily diet for the current Irish team nutritionist, Ruth Wood-Martin. This incorporated everything, from his haul of pints to chips and steaks. “I remember I had to put in gravy, chips and spare leftover barbecue for breakfast before going to the gym. That didn’t go down too well.”
Starting out, he was “a bit of a rake”, by his own admission, about 89kg, and even now has a constant battle to keep his weight around the 99kg mark. At the Ospreys, the players weigh themselves daily, and Bowe regularly takes muscle-repairing shakes, as well as filling himself regularly with carbs – a fairly constant part of his diet, especially on match days.
He allows himself certain indulgences, although he gave up biscuits for Lent, and as well as the occasional pizza, he adores Chinese food. “There’s a new all-you-can-eat restaurant that’s just opened up in Swansea called Cosmos, with Indian, Thai and Chinese food. There’d be a few fellas in the team now who would be waddling out of that, so they would.”
Living on his own in an apartment on the marina in Swansea, he doesn’t have too much time or inclination to cook, although sometimes uses Jamie Oliver’s 30-Minute Meals app on his iPhone, and last week rustled up a chicken korma with rice, fresh peppers, onions, mangetout, grapes and raisins. “Whatever’s in the fridge and about to go off, shove it in.”
Bowe inherits his pace from his mother Ann, as opposed to his 6’ 5” dad Paul, a one-time second-row schools and colleges rugby player. They enjoy regular trips to Swansea, although his mum often cannot cope with the pressure of watching her boy play, and disappears for a glass of wine to the club bar, preferring the running track along the marina, which she used as part of her training for the London Marathon two weeks ago. “She ran it in four hours and 46. She ran the Dublin marathon four years ago and did it in four and 51, so she’s delighted.”
It also made for a great day out for the family, as his dad Paul, sister Hannah and brother David were also there. “I look at people doing marathons and kind of think they’ve got a screw loose. It does not appeal to me at all. But I’ve never seen anything like it – it was like a carnival. They had bands pretty much playing every six miles. The good weather helped and I felt like I’d walked a marathon, I’d done that much walking trying to follow her. I was real proud of her.”
Bowe describes his brother as “the wacky scientist among us. He’s studying mechanical engineering in Imperial [College, in London].” Hannah, meanwhile, recently resumed her international hockey career with a less remunerative dedication, which makes Bowe appreciate how privileged he is.
After a Tuesday to Friday working week with Deloitte in London, she plays with Slough on Saturdays, flies home at around 5pm and trains with the Irish squad on Sunday and Monday, before returning to London. “It’s Hannah’s dream to play in the [London] Olympics,” says Bowe, adding: “If I’m struggling in the morning I’d give her a call and she’d tell me, ‘wise up’.”
Sport was always a recurring theme of the Bowe family. Paul won a Leinster Senior Cup schools medal with Newbridge and played colours rugby for UCD, although Bowe quips: “Dad’s a bit of a donkey now in fairness so Hannah can thank him for her speed. He just missed the hippie train. He had the long hair down past his shoulders, he had an old jacket that he ripped off, I don’t know, some curtain rail.”
His dad hails from Waterford and moved to Monaghan on leaving UCD to work with Silverhill Duckling, while his mum, from Kildare, left university to work in Craigavon hospital in Monaghan, which is where his parents met. Paul set up his own business, BD Foods, while Ann began her own physiotherapy clinic.
Home in Emyvale was “the middle of nowhere”, 500 metres from their nearest neighbours with maybe one passing tractor a day the height of the traffic, school a mile’s walk or cycle away, and a couple of big gardens to kick a ball around. As Paul and other family members had 10-year tickets to Irish home games in Lansdowne Road, Bowe used to love the Five Nations weekends treks to Dublin to see cousins and have a McDonald’s, and maybe go to the cinema. Sometimes, sneaking around the Berkeley Court Hotel afterwards, Bowe had the programmes autographed by heroes such as Simon Geoghegan as mementoes. “It’s kind of funny when I see boys doing the same to me now.”
He was into Gaelic football, horseriding, soccer, tennis and golf, but once he began boarding in the Royal School of Armagh, rugby took over. Even so, he is partly serious when reckoning that he’d have become an alcoholic student somewhere in Scotland but for fate and the intervention of Allen Clarke, then Ulster Rugby Academy director.
When he finished school, Bowe went on holidays to Tenerife with then team-mate Gareth Steenson, who played with the Irish schools and is now with Exeter Chiefs in the English Premiership. “I went on the beers and came back with bleached blonde hair and a blue stripe down my head. I don’t know what came over me but I went straight from Tenerife to an academy camp Allen Clarke had organised, and it went well for me.”
Clarke, then the Ulster academy director, asked Bowe to play for the Ulster under-19s, and then the Ulster under-21s, from which his career was launched. “The thing was, I wouldn’t have gone to that summer camp except I did badly in my A-Levels. Allen Clarke saw that I’d struggled to get into my first and second choices so he saw an opportunity to keep me in Belfast, got me into the academy, got me into a course in Jordanstown, and that’s where I stayed.”
This is the same Bowe who endorses Lloyd and Price shoes. Two Monaghan lads who own a shoe company wanted someone to launch a new brand, so Bowe seemed a natural fit. “We’ve brought out 15 different styles, some of them would be ones that I would wear, some of them would be ones that I mightn’t be so keen on, but when I offer them to the Irish boys I couldn’t get over that there was only one style of the 15 that somebody didn’t pick. We had the launch recently and things are going really well for us.”
Toward the end of the 2003-2004 season he scored a try on his Ulster debut against Connacht and would score a try on his debut for Ireland the following November against the USA at Lansdowne Road. Although there was the disappointment of missing out on the 2007 World Cup, since that summer’s move to the Ospreys, Bowe has never looked back.
Aside from a host of Irish and Welsh player of the year awards, there was Ireland’s Grand Slam of 2009 – when he scored one of Ireland’s two tries in their dramatic finale against Wales – and making the Lions test team later that summer in South Africa.
“I actually just loved that tour from start to finish,” he says with evident relish. “I really was enjoying my rugby, the training and everything. It was really tough but I felt I was confident and playing well.”
He has an RTÉ montage of that Slam-winning day in Cardiff, which he recently showed as part of a speech on leadership and teamwork he presented to one of the Ospreys’ sponsors, RWE, a renewable energy company. “There was a bunch of English people who, y’know, supposedly hate the Irish . . . but you could see even then they were really moved. It’s quite an emotional video.”
He’s far from sated, and at 27 these should be the prime years, beginning with the World Cup later this year. Typically, though, he doesn’t think about the World Cup, his mind looking no further than an upcoming two-week trek to the west coast of the US with three friends.
But for rugby, he would have seen more of the world by now. He doesn’t mind putting himself out there – witness his infamous and reluctant solo version of the The Black Velvet Band as part of the Irish squad’s televised Grand Slam celebrations. “I think that was the start of it. I think that was at the time the most cringe-worthy thing I’ve ever done in my life but I think it’s actually worked in my favour since then, in being seen to have a bit of a sense of humour.”
And, returning to the food theme, there was his appearance on RTÉ’s The Restaurant, where celebrities dare to become a chef and have their meal assessed by celebrity critics. “I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for,” he confesses.
Working summer days with his dad in BD Foods, as a kid Bowe had often made deliveries to kitchens and he admits he saw it as an opportunity to plug his father’s company.
“It was totally out of my comfort zone, but I was devastated when I only got two stars. When I go to a restaurant, you know, fill me up full of meat and wine or beer and I’ll go home happy. But when I see The Restaurant now I realise it’s more about presentation. It was a bit of an error on my part but actually I really enjoyed it.”
It helps when you enjoy being taken out of your comfort zone and you don’t take yourself too seriously. Not a bad way to be either.