Tommy Bowe still hoping to play again at highest level

Veteran Ulster winger plays at centre tonight in what may be a sign of things to come

Last season Tommy Bowe had a "jeez" moment with Ulster. Thoughts flashed across his mind. Should he continue, could he climb back into thin air, back to the level he was once at, or, was this the way players fade from centre stage with an injury, a struggle and a soft retirement?

Very few end rugby life on their own terms like Brian O’Driscoll. But as last season became this one, Bowe finds strength back in his legs and he’s training well. That’s good. But the landscape has changed dramatically over the last month.

Bowe has emerged from his hurt locker to find himself staring down both barrels of Jacob Stockdale. Four tries in his first four international matches, two against Argentina. Welcome back Tommy.

“At the weekend to come away with two tries is fantastic to see,” says Bowe. “He’s got a spring in his step, he’s confident and for such a young guy with not a huge amount of caps, to be able to back himself to be able to go on the outside to take people on, it shows the quality he has.

“It shows what a good place he is in at the moment and in Ulster we will be looking forward to getting him back firing on all cylinders again . . . hopefully not take my place. I think he’s only just showing the start of what he has got.”

In March of this year, a bewildered Bowe was driven off the pitch at the Principality Stadium. Brought on in the 80th minute, Bowe suffered a leg fracture within 30 seconds of being on the pitch after being tackled by Jamie Roberts and Luke Charteris. It was his fifth significant injury in as many seasons.

‘My body feels good’

“I’m really enjoying my rugby at the minute,” he says. “My body feels good. Getting that consistency of playing week to week is great. I’m playing with a smile on my face. Getting fed up sometimes when I’m not getting the ball but that shows hunger.

“If you had asked me this last year it would have been ‘oh jeez I don’t know if I can [keep playing]’ but the way my body feels now I feel great. I’d love to keep on going. I’ve had my shares of injuries over the years and you do always question. But if I can keep training, keep competing with the young fellas . . . I don’t want to give up just yet.”

Today even if Stockdale wasn’t kicking back under the player welfare scheme, Bowe would not have been challenged. Picked in the centre with Stuart McCloskey, it may be the shape of the things to come, when Stockdale returns for the European and interprovincial block of matches this month and next.

It’s an interesting conundrum for head coach Les Kiss – a 33-year-old British and Irish Lion with 69 caps or an on-fire 21-year-old from Lisburn with four caps.

But Ulster have less prosaic things to consider. The team is misfiring at the moment, creating problems by undoing good work and dragging straightforward wins into question.

“This next block is really going to test us, really going to show how good we are, where we are,” says Bowe. “There’s a belief . . . we know we have the team, we have the players, the support. We know we have everything there.

“Our game plan is getting us into positions where we can put teams under huge stress. We are just not executing that final pass. We are making small mistakes.

Mistakes

“Certainly I believe that we have the team here that can win the two matches in Europe going to the interpros and we want to win those games too. We feel we are good enough to do it. It’s just cutting out those small mistakes that are killing us.”

Bowe is comfortable in Irish training camps. It has been his history. But throughout November himself and Andrew Trimble, two veterans of World Cup and Six Nations campaigns, sat it out less than two hours up the road from Carton House. There was no call from Schmidt with Stockdale, Andrew Conway and Darren Sweetnam given their chances.

“Whenever you see the likes of Jacob come through, Rob Lyttle, these young fellas are coming through and pushing hard to start week in week out for Ulster, to get into Ireland camp,” says Bowe.

“Myself and Trimby would love to be down in Ireland camp. It does give you that hunger.”

He hasn’t given up, not yet.