Bowe ready to step into the breach
Wing can fill void left by stalwart leaders
There was a time when Tommy Bowe's selection for an Ireland squad was met with groans, but the winger's transformation is such that he is now considered essential to the national cause.
Home may be a four-hour drive from Ireland's Limerick headquarters this week, but the Monaghan man relishes his time in the Ireland camp as a change of scenery from life in Swansea with the Ospreys, and he is adamant that living out of a suitcase for five weeks is "great fun".
The popular back has become ever more important to the Ireland set-up over the last two seasons and is one of the first names on Declan Kidney's teamsheet, even if he is careful to preface any talk of the upcoming Guinness Series with lines like "if I'm selected".
At this stage, the dropping of Bowe would be sensational given his heroic impact on the national team after his barnstorming try against Wales in the Grand Slam finale and the matchwinning double salvo at Twickenham last year.
Combined with his cult-hero status on the 2009 Lions tour and his infamous rendition of 'Black Velvet Band' on Merrion Square, the 26-year-old is now one of the most recognisable and marketable members of the squad.
Alongside Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, Bowe is one of the players Kidney needs to step up in terms of leadership, and with Paul O'Connell out of action until Christmas and Brian O'Driscoll's November looking doubtful, their credentials will be put under serious scrutiny.
Five years ago, both captain and vice-captain missed out on the autumn schedule and Ireland capitulated. New Zealand ran in 45 points, and a week later Australia cantered to 30 before a facile win over Romania finished the series.
As a fresh-faced 21-year-old, Bowe won caps four, five and six in a humbling experience. Ireland's inability to cope without their totems was stark, and the Ospreys winger says the ability to react to their loss has never been more important, as they face what he describes as the most testing November schedule he has encountered.
"We need to be (able to cope without O'Connell and O'Driscoll)," he says. "As a team, we can't be relying on those guys. It's very important that if the Irish team has to grow, that we realise the two boys aren't going to be around forever.
"There is plenty of experience in the team with players coming through who have played in big matches, and hopefully that will come through and we can step up.
"Obviously South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina are huge -- among the best teams in the world. Samoa are going to be difficult too, they will be extremely physical. So it's going to be a very physical couple of weeks for us, but it's good in the lead-up to the World Cup year."
First up are the Springboks, whose visit last year was a memorable one as Ireland emerged from the fog victorious. The feeling at the time was that the two teams simply didn't get on after the fallout of the Lions tour and skipper John Smit's book, but Bowe disagrees with that perception, having shared a few pints with his opponents after the Croke Park clash.
"I haven't really found that," he says. "With the Lions, it was such an intense competition that it just brought the most competitive side out in all of us. All of the players, when they lost, were really hurting.
"Everything was built to be a great tour and we ended up losing the series, so to get that win last year as an Irish team was huge for us. There is no bad blood between either side, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was an intense or physical match.
"We had a dinner with them after last year's match. We had a few beers and we were all sitting down at different tables with them, so it's a good opportunity to have a chat, to them and see how they are getting on. There is still a good opportunity to mix with them.
"I've only played against them once for Ireland. They are a team who are a world-class side so I don't know -- I've no problems playing them, I've a lot of respect for them but at the same time, I know they are a team that we can beat."
If Bowe and Heaslip are to emerge as the leaders of the team, they will need to focus on their discipline this campaign, after they both found out the cost of lapses -- against the All Blacks in particular.
Two years ago, Bowe's deliberate knock-on handed New Zealand a penalty try as he departed to the sin-bin at Croke Park, leaving Ireland with little hope of success, while the No 8's moment of madness cost Ireland dearly in New Plymouth.
The winger says Ireland are learning the lesson the hard way, that you cannot compete with the big teams from the southern hemisphere a man down, because they will punish any opportunity they are given.
"That's exactly what they have done to us every time," he sighed. "That time, when I got sin-binned, I think it was 3-3, so then it was 10-3 and down to 14 men. That's game over and it was just half-time.
"During the summer, we were underneath their posts and if we had managed to get over the line with a conversion then it would have been game on again. But, unfortunately, we lost a player and we ended up losing another player.
"So if you are to ever to have an opportunity against the All Blacks, a team we've never beaten, you really need a full complement of players -- because they really capitalise on small errors."