Tommy Bowe: 'To be knocked out of the World Cup, come off after 12 minutes and to watch the game from the medical room... it was a right kick in the balls'
Published 05/12/2015 | 02:30
Upstairs, the cacophony is deafening but down below Tommy Bowe lies in silence and fights back the pain as he watches the World Cup come crashing down around him.
His knee is in agony, while the television screens beam out the events on the surface where his Ireland team-mates are battling their way out of the hole they've dug for themselves, only for it all to cave back in again.
An innocuous chop tackle from Tomas Lavanini abruptly ended the winger's involvement after just 11 minutes, and for the other 69 he had to watch from the medical room beneath the Millennium Stadium.
"To be knocked out of the competition, to come off after 10 minutes or 12 minutes and to watch the rest of the game from the medical room; it was a right kick in the balls alright," Bowe concedes with a wry smile.
"It was brutal. Like, the pain in your knee has you thinking: 'How long, what have I done to myself here?', you fear the worst.
"Then, on the other hand, you're watching the game having been involved in that first 10 minutes where Argentina just blew us off the park. Seeing us get back to within a whisker of getting in front and then fall away again. . . listen it was a pretty difficult day all round.
"I can only take one positive out of it, that my knee isn't as bad as it could have been.
"I would love to have been part of Ireland being in a semi-final, I would love to have been a spectator with Ireland being in a semi-final, but unfortunately it wasn't the case."
Seven weeks on, the World Cup exit continues to linger over the Irish season and, while his team-mates have been able to get back on to the pitch - with mixed results - Bowe has been consigned to one-legged rowing and sit-down boxing sessions.
The prognosis on his knee is a positive one. Although, he does not know when he'll return to playing and endured real pain, by tearing his posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) off the bone rather than rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), he avoided the worst case scenario.
He is familiar with the recovery trail, having been blighted with injury throughout the last four seasons, yet it never gets easier.
The two weeks on his back watching box-sets were hell, but soon enough he was back on his feet and heading into work at Ulster.
The day we meet, he is walking without crutches but his right knee is in a Forrest Gump-style brace to ensure the ligament re-attaches to the bone. It is a painfully slow process, but he hopes to be able to resume training after Christmas.
"When it happened I felt a pop in my knee and I felt it hyper-extend and I really feared for the worst with it," he reflects. "So, to hear that my ACL, the bad cruciate, is intact, that my lateral ligament and everything else I did the last time is all screwed together and is still intact. . . it could have been way worse.
"Normally, a PCL tear doesn't even need to be operated on, but because it's come off the bone they felt it would be best to attach it back on. It's quite a rare surgery and that's the reason for a clouded return-to-play date. At the minute it's very much play by ear."
While it wasn't as serious as it might have been, it still wasn't a pleasant experience.
"It wasn't nice, no. At the time, it was more the hyper-extension that really flared up the joint in my knee," he explains. "It just ballooned completely. It wasn't nice for a couple of weeks. It was awkward, but the recovery is going okay.
"It's still just early days. I'm going to enjoy my Christmas, keep training and hopefully when the new year comes I can try and re-focus on getting myself back on the pitch."
The Emyvale, Co Monaghan native is 31 now, but his hunger for the game remains strong despite the long road ahead. He is determined to make it back as soon as possible and recapture the form he showed as the World Cup went on.
"It's very, very frustrating. To come back, work so hard to get myself back up to the fitness and performance levels that I did at the World Cup, to enjoy my rugby again and then take a knock like this to knock you back to square one again," he says.
"That's the really frustrating thing: to know that I'll have to go through all of that again to get myself back out. . . but you're more than happy to do it, because whenever you're sitting on the sidelines, watching the big matches, watching the European or Irish matches, that gives you the hunger for it.
"You just want to be on the pitch. I'm happy to do the weights, to do the fitness, but the real enjoyment for me in being a rugby player is getting out there and playing the game."
As an experience, Bowe's enjoyment of the World Cup has been tempered by how it all ended.
It began with him being left out for the win over Canada after his shocking outing against England in the final warm-up game. He bounced back and grew into the tournament, scoring two tries against Romania and playing an important role in keeping Italy at bay when things looked like getting out of hand at the Olympic Stadium. He played well against France, but it all came crashing down a week later in Cardiff.
"I really enjoyed it, running out at Wembley for the Romania game, having missed out on the Canada game, that was as excited as I've felt in a long time," he reflects.
"The crowd that was there, pretty much 90,000 Irish people, was amazing. To go from that to the Italian and French matches was incredible, to see the crowds in Cardiff that day . . . they were occasions that you'll never forget.
"The squad got on really well, but, in the end, it all comes back down to that loss. I'll never be able to look at it as a successful tour because of the disappointment at the end."
As for that disappointment, there has been much soul-searching as to what went wrong in those opening 20 minutes against the Pumas, when Ireland looked so far off the pace.
"They saved their best game of their whole tournament for our match. I don't think we helped ourselves, we didn't come out of the blocks the way we had done against France, the way we'd expected to in that game," is Bowe's take.
"I remember feeling at the time that, physically, they were just firing it into us and we were caught on the back foot.
"You can have all the super ball-players and whenever things are going well, everybody looks great, but when something like that happens, having Paul O'Connell or someone there, a few senior players who can re-assess things and calm things down. . . that's when experience really comes in.
"I don't know if, when we conceded that first try, we had re-consolidated and if we were a bit more clinical in the next few plays and stopped that next try. . . to go 14-0 down and then 17-0 down, that's a difficult place to come back from in a quarter-final.
"That experience, who knows whether that could have solidified us a little bit. But, it's hard to come up with explanations."
Before the tournament began, Bowe said that the quarter-final exit to Wales in 2011 had been the greatest disappointment of his career and that remains the case.
"For me, because of getting injured - and it was tough having to watch it in the changing-room. . . but because I wasn't out there for the full game I kind of feel like I couldn't do (anything)," he says.
"Against Wales, I was there for the full 80 minutes and even though we went behind I felt like I could have made a difference to get us back into it. So I felt really dejected after that.
"This time, I felt dejected because I was part of that first 10 minutes, but then I came off when I couldn't redeem myself or make amends."
The fallout from the World Cup has brought with it much teeth-gnashing about Ireland's skill-sets and game-plan, but Bowe does not believe that this is a 'back to the drawing board' moment.
"We've won the last two Six Nations, in 2014 we scored more tries than any Ireland team has ever scored in the Six Nations and played super rugby. The second time, because teams were becoming aware of our style and tactics, we kicked a bit more and put teams under pressure in ways they weren't expecting," he says.
"Because it was successful, parts of that were carried through to the World Cup, but whether teams are now expecting that again, I'd imagine Ireland might change again and we might try different styles, different things. That's why Joe is probably one of the best coaches in the world, he is very adaptive.
"As players, I don't think we're too worried about that. I'd love to play super rugby; unfortunately I wasn't getting the ball in my hands as much as I would have liked to, but we were winning, it was part of a team effort and you do whatever you can do to try and help the team.
"If I was coming on to the wing coming into the Six Nations, I'd love to try something different, to get myself on the ball and try and attack."
For now, that will have to wait. In January, Bowe hopes to return to the field and run again before progressing back to playing. It's a long road, but he's all too familiar with it.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme, the IRFU Charitable Trust and Co-operation Ireland have teamed up to create the Entwined Histories Challenge, a 100km walk or 450km cycle tour of historical sites of the Rising and the battlefields of northern France between May 23-29, 2016. For more information, contact Linda Black, IRFU Charitable Trust (email@example.com) or Winne Orr (+44 (0) firstname.lastname@example.org)