Tommy Bowe still on his game and alert to all possibilities
Former Lions, Ireland and Ulster winger has never been one to settle for the comfort zone
Tommy Bowe: has become a familiar figure on our television screens having embraced a media career following his rugby career. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
“Tired but I’m good. It’s all go,” he says, unbroken by the new routine. Like any regular long-hauler, Bowe has it measured like a backline drill. Out of the city, the Mary McAleese Bridge, the Border, Belfast.
“An hour and 45 minutes to two hours,” he says. “It’s a right trek.”
A few years out from rugby retirement and the instinct is to look towards the horizon ahead, not back. He was always wired that way from the moment just over two seasons ago he told his Belfast employers and the IRFU he had one more year in the tank. They offered an extension. But by 2018 he was done, dry. He’d had the conversation with his body, with his dad, with himself.
“I was 34. I realised that my body . . . I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says. “I was chatting to my dad recently about it. He knew that I was done when I said to him that in my eyes, in my head I could see the gaps okay. But my body couldn’t get me through them anymore.
“The closer I got to 34, while I was still able to see the gaps and get through they were getting a hand on me. Then it was two hands on me and then a shoulder. Then there was no gap at all anymore.
“You had young guys, Jacob Stockdale, Robert Baloucoune coming through the Ulster academy at that stage. On the Irish side there were other guys pushing and I knew that I didn’t have that fight in me anymore. I pretty much made the decision a year out. I tried to enjoy my run in, my last week of training, my last big game, my last international. I thought I’d appreciate the game so much more than if I had left bitter.”
Home now is Belfast, where he lives with Welsh wife Lucy and children Emma and Jamie. The daily solo run to Dublin has replaced the team bus for expanding television work, which is where he slung his hook even before retiring as a player. Bowe is no accidental tourist, who stumbled into our sitting rooms.
While playing with Ulster a screen test landed him a BBC holiday show Getaways. He had done a few small features around the rugby Schools Cup for BBC Northern Ireland, then heard a whisper that there was an opportunity on a travel program.
He’d just broken his leg playing against Wales and had first child Emma three weeks earlier.
“Yeah, that match against Wales in the Six Nations, ” he recalls. “Jamie Roberts landed on my leg. I remember feeling a snap. It was the last minute of the game. I heard Wayne Barnes saying ‘scrum down Wales ball’. I said ‘sorry Wayne I think I’ve broken my leg’. He says to me ‘you’re just on the park’. I was like ‘yeah I know’.
“The trolley came and collected me. It was the same doctors, the same staff that took me off the same pitch in the 2015 World Cup in the match against Argentina. I knew that was my last time playing for Ireland.
“My leg did break. I did get surgery. I did come back. I remember at the time going to the maternity ward with my moon boot on. Lucy was eight and a half months pregnant and strange things, the bin men, they were offering to help me rather than helping her.
“But a lot of things changed around then. My head changed. You spend your whole career chasing, wanting to be number one and there are always people biting at your heels, biting at your heels.
“That or it’s you doing the chasing, it’s you biting at people’s heels. I always had a lot going on outside of rugby and that was important for me. I saw the likes of Stephen Ferris or Felix Jones who were forced into retirement. I saw the torture. I saw how difficult that was. I didn’t want that.”
Now Bowe is interviewing interviewers, he’s presenting presenters, he’s presiding over presidents and occasionally nips over to the studio kitchen to do a summer sweet. The skill set of morning television.
Last week on the Virgin Media morning show, Ireland AM, where Bowe replaced Ciara Doherty in the summer, a guest was one-time RTÉ Sunday Game Live front man Michael Lyster. As a former Monaghan minor footballer, Bowe has shared GAA DNA with the retired broadcaster. Former Irish president McAleese was another guest.
Then Bowe was asked to flip the mood and talk on the alchemy of baking the perfect pavlova. The relative newness of the challenge, it’s more game time outside his comfort zone.
He can draw parallels to the squad vibe, the preparation, the performance and putting the show together. The red light goes on, he says “and I’m running out into Aviva Stadium again”.
When Bowe turned down Leicester Tigers to leave Ulster for Wales in 2008 and sign a three-year contract with Ospreys, it was a deliberate move from the cheerful contentment of Belfast.
“All my friends were there [Ulster]. But my rugby wasn’t going great,” he says. “I could not get back into the Ireland team and 13 of the Ospreys team had just won a Grand Slam with Wales. That’s why I didn’t go to Leicester.”
It was a steely and calculated decision to leave. But it was the brief conversation with the Irish president from Belfast that reminded just how Ulster Rugby had embraced Bowe and Bowe, Ulster Rugby.
A Catholic, who came from a small Monaghan border town Emyvale in the Republic of Ireland and who spent secondary school in Northern Ireland at the Royal School Armagh, Bowe understands the circumstantial flow of religion and politics in the north, the natural streaming process that takes place by name or by school or by district.
He successfully walked a path between religions and cultures, his genes from south of the Border and the Ulster juice of Monaghan sitting comfortably side by side.
“The beginning of her life is like a movie script,” he says of McAleese. “The trouble she went through in Belfast. Her house was attacked with machine gun fire. She was from a Catholic family living in a Protestant area and forced to flee. To think this was Belfast where I spent so much time.
“It was something that never affected my childhood. Maybe my family shielded me from it or maybe it just wasn’t there . . . I lived in Emyvale which is right on the Border. My mum worked in Craigavon Hospital for a bit. We’d go up and down the Border a lot and we had the checkpoints and the submachine guns. It was a way of life for us.
“In terms of sectarianism I think I’ve always been good at playing both sides. I am a Catholic and the majority of the guys and girls in my school were Protestants from the North. But I fitted in really well. We took the piss out of each other. There were a couple of other Catholics in my class and we used to enjoy the craic.
“Look, I know the Ardoyne, the area she [McAleese] is from, the Crumlin Road. I know it well and she talked about how her house was like a colander with the gunshots. I do a bit of work with a few charities in the North. In all the time I spent in Ulster and Belfast I’ve never come across any trouble.
“The biggest move for me was to go to school in Armagh when I was 11. I’m from a small little village. There were 10 in my class in primary school. To go to secondary school in Armagh, where I didn’t know anybody, was a big move. But I think that got me used to getting out of my comfort zone.”
He lightly cackles when the universal truth of Tommy Bowe is revealed to him. Carton House, Aviva Stadium, Ravenhill, Twickenham, Wembley, win, lose, man of the match, limping off injured, try or no try scored, the Bowe spirit was always hospitable. When defeated players came in for interview choleric and bearish with snappy one-word answers, the Irish winger was moored to helpful exchanges. He understood the process. His spleen was never on view.
That was largely, he thinks, because he didn’t read too hard or listen too attentively to the criticism. But some he couldn’t avoid. In one of George Hook’s Theatre of the Absurd episodes on RTÉ, the pundit’s observation of Bowe in 2004, after his international debut against USA in which he scored a try, was that the callow Irish winger didn’t have the pace to be an international player.
Five years later Bowe was gathering a Ronan O’Gara chip to burn Welsh flier Shane Williams in the Grand Slam game for one of his 30 international tries. With Keith Earls he is second behind Brian O’Driscoll (46) in the all-time Irish try scoring list.
“I knew fairly early on that it affected me mentally,” he says of the negative commentary, or, as he calls it “grenade throwing”. “You would have thought people are questioning you. I never thought that was ever a good place to be.”
Where he found the competitive edge for a 13-year international career and 69 Irish caps as well as five with the Lions in 2009 in South Africa and 2013 in Australia, was in his internal drive. There was a need to always be better than the other person. Earls, Stockdale, Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble saw to that.
But his Jamie Roberts ankle fracture came 15 months after serious damage to the cruciate ligament in his right knee. By then Bowe was in his 30s watching as the gaps narrowed with more and more defender’s lunges caressing the fabric of his shirt.
“When I hit 30 I had so many injuries. It was a mental struggle. But I enjoyed the battle to get myself back fit. I worked so, so, so hard to get myself into that  Six Nations. I remember people questioning Joe Schmidt about why he hadn’t picked me. Joe could see that on the training field I ticked all the boxes. I did everything to try and force my way in.
“I did that to get a last run in an Irish jersey. Even a Lions Tour that I knew was far away. But I thought there was still a chance. I was picked on the bench to play against Scotland in the Six Nations. Then I played two weeks later in that match against Wales when Jamie fell on me.”
It was Eddie O’Sullivan who gave Bowe his first Irish shirt. Declan Kidney encouraged him to play the way he did with Ospreys, to pop up in places and not just hang out on the wing. Joe Schmidt was more a regular, structured winger coach. Of the three Kidney suited Bowe’s needs and wants better than the other two. That’s just the way it was. Kidney, he feels, got the best rugby version of Tommy Bowe.
“I owe a lot to Eddie. Eddie gave me my first cap when I was in my early 20s. I was raw and young. Probably wasn’t at a good enough level against the likes of Denis Hickey and Shane Horgan. Deccie gave me the opportunity to play the way I played with the Ospreys. They did not want their danger men on the wing just standing out wide. I was playing a style of rugby that gave me such free range,” he says.
Playing days, dramatic days, intense days and days that were sometimes brutal often while the world eagerly watched. Days that were never less than a powerful, consuming addiction. But Bowe has never suffered from separation from the locker room, estrangement from the hit of the glory days.
It helped that he made a documentary about it, The End Game, where among others jockey AP McCoy, soccer’s Paul McGrath and sprinter Derval O’Rourke spoke about new truths and new beginnings, breaking from the extreme constructs of their former lives and having to perform endlessly.
Brassy and unflinching, McCoy confessed that he missed the daily examination of fear, the fear of putting his body on the line.
But that wasn’t Bowe. His take was to appreciate the experiences for what they were. Not to try and chase them down again, a sentiment, he says, that came from O’Rourke.
Maybe that explains another partial pivot from Eir Sport and rugby with his latest venture with Virgin Media in Ireland’s New Normal, screened last Tuesday. With his entrepreneurial toe in the clothing industry and his own products in 200 shops around Ireland, Bowe meets business owners who were forced to adapt in order to survive the pandemic and he hears their stories. The words, retail, high street bring enthusiasm to his voice.
“I’d just broken my leg. We’d just had Emma who was three weeks old,” he explains. “I headed off to Italy with Vogue Williams to film. Players get four week’s holidays. Three of those I used up filming that holiday show. That’s where I wanted to go.”
That’s where Bowe is. Back on his game, again out of the comfort zone. Catching opportunity, breaking the gainline.