Tommy Bowe is roaring back to fitness
The rugby star is gearing up for a new season after his amazing comeback to play for the lions this summer despite breaking a hand
It's probably a given that strapping rugby players have strong, impressive handshakes ... though in the case of Tommy Bowe, I've yet to confirm that.
Still nursing a much-talked-about hand injury (a hangover from a fateful match on the Lions tour against the Queensland Reds), Bowe offers me his left hand instead when we meet, resulting in something that's not so much a handshake as a sweetly awkward hand-wring.
"This is a different injury to that one," he explains, referring to the metacarpal injury that nearly put paid to his Lions' tour in June this year. "I broke the bone ... I got it caught on a jersey and it split my two fingers apart, so that wasn't nice. I knew straightaway that something was wrong, but no one could look at it until the ball went out of play so I had to play for a few minutes with it."
How is that even possible? "Ah, at this level you have to put this stuff behind you and play on," he shrugs.
After months of anticipating the Lions tour of Australia – the career pinnacle for most Irish or British rugby players – the prospect of having the dream cut short was "devastating".
"I got injured the Christmas before and hurt my knee, and then I thought that was my season and my Lions experience over," he reflects. "I managed to battle back and got fit and when I was picked to go on the tour it was incredible.
"I felt I was playing well, so to go and break my hand ... well, it felt like it was falling apart. And then when they told me they could have me back on the pitch within a few weeks ... it was a real rollercoaster of emotions."
Hand-brace aside, Bowe is certainly match-fit and chomping at the bit ahead of the new rugby season. That said, Bowe concedes that this is a "dreaded" time of year for most players, where chomping down 5,000 calories a day is the norm. "You're back from holidays where you've sat around like a slob most of the time, taking it easy by the pool for a while, so I'm back to getting my fitness levels back up again. They've got me running lengths, and because arm and hand injuries are quite common, there is plenty to be doing at the gym with machines and weight-lifting bars designed for these injuries."
We are meeting ostensibly to talk about his latest collaboration with sandwich chain Subway, of which he has just become a 'famous fan'. With Bowe joining swimmer Michael Phelps, gymnast Louis Smith and boxer Anthony Ogogo, the Subway collaboration is designed to encourage people to lead a healthier and more active lifestyle.
"Obviously, being an athlete and having to eat a lot of food, we're encouraged to be eating a lot of the right stuff," says Tommy. "So Subway asked me to come on board."
It's an interesting career move for Bowe, and probably one with the long game firmly in mind. For many a sportsman, an injury brings into sharp focus one unpalatable home truth; your body may be your fortune, but it can also prove to be your downfall, too. Little wonder that a growing number of sportsmen are keeping a keen eye on life after retirement. An affiliation with Subway, coupled with an RTé show in which Bowe explored the science behind his own physicality (of which, more later), essentially places Bowe nicely to eventually become something of a well-being, health and fitness guru.
"The game is becoming so much more physical and the guys are getting bigger and stronger; it's not unusual to see guys calling it a day earlier," reflects Bowe who, at the age of 29, is something of a seasoned veteran. He's not wrong, recent research states that 30pc of Irish rugby players retiring from injury are under 30. "Eoin O'Malley (Leinster centre) had to retire at 25, and I know a lot of guys who've had to hang up their boots after career-ending injuries," he concedes.
"More and more, (post-career life) is at the back of my mind and I know I need to start preparing. One more bad knock and it could be curtains for good. Rugby can consume your life – one bad game can give you sleepless nights – but I've a few things in the pipeline that keeps my mind off rugby."
Such as? "Well, I have a degree in engineering, and I'm back studying with Hibernia College, doing a post-grad in business management."
Added to this, Bowe's Lloyd&Pryce shoe line has been going from strength to strength in the Irish market. Buoyed by its success, he is gearing up to release his first clothing line – the appropriately named 15 Kings – in time for the Christmas rush. Bowe won't quite be rugby's answer to Paul Galvin, sidestepping high fashion for something a little more utilitarian.
"We're looking at the kinds of clothes that people wear to rugby matches," he explains. "T-shirts, jerseys, jackets, gilets. People are surprised at the quality; I think it's expected that when you put your name to something you're happy to put out any old crap, but we've been researching this for 18 months. It's been a long old process but it's exciting."
Of all the rugby players who have created their off-pitch personal brand, surely Brian O'Driscoll – with his myriad of engagements and endorsements – is held by other players as something of an ideal in that regard?
"Your brand is very important," acknowledges Tommy. "But as soon as you hang up your boots, you get forgotten very quickly. Brian is totally different to anyone in Irish rugby, as he's an icon all over the world. Your brand is what people judge you on. You want people to look positively. Whatever I can do to help me in the future."
As is often the way with sports personalities, he has dipped his toe in the brave new world of TV. The RTé documentary, Tommy Bowe's Bodycheck, lifted the lid on exactly what was needed to become a professional player, from speed and endurance to mental agility and even genes. The documentary, informative as it was, received a warm reaction from critics.
'Ienjoyed it, but it took up a lot of time," he recalls. "A lot of people didn't understand the sacrifice that goes into playing and that was one of the key things behind the show. I'm happy with how it came out, though when you're talking to camera and stuff like that, you feel like a bit of an idiot."
Does that mean there's a chance we may see Tommy in another guise on Irish screens ... a reality outing like Celebrity Bookkeeping or Celebrity Welding, perhaps?
"No, no, I don't think so," he laughs. "It would need to be the right project all right, but never say never. You never know what'll take my fancy."
Given how many times Bowe has been bestowed with 'Sexiest Man' accolades down the years, surely every production company in the land is knocking down his door? Not quite.
"They're quite funny really," he says, referring to the dubious honour. "Most of my teammates don't agree, and they say they can't wait to meet the real Tommy Bowe. I don't pay too much heed."
He also elects to ignore the bottom half of the internet, too; rugby supporters are outspoken and vocal, and have little problem taking their opinions and criticisms online.
"On the forums and websites people are outspoken, just like any supporter of anything, but I made a decision not to get too involved in it all when I was younger," admits Tommy. "You read one bad thing about yourself, you try to forget it, but it does stay in there. I'm on Twitter and Facebook, but people are mainly dead on and a bit of craic.
"I tend to rarely read newspapers, especially if there's a report I might be involved in," he adds. "The only people I need to worry about are my teammates and coaches."
For now, Bowe's head (and, injuries aside, his body) are very much back in the game ... and a move home to Ulster from Ospreys last year has certainly breathed new life into his playing.
"The time was right for me to come back and come to Ulster," he says. "They're so ambitious at the minute and there are a lot of young guys coming through. I'm one of the older ones, which is a bit depressing!"
And, while Bowe is still very much a vital part of his provincial and national teams (he's signed a three-year deal with Ulster), the idea of what might lie ahead way down the line is rarely far from his head.
"It's going to be hard to fill that void of running out on to a pitch with 20,000 people shouting at you," he notes before seeing me off with another jovial hand-wring.
"Trying to recreate that somewhere else will definitely be difficult."