Bowe delight at early return as Payne gets chance to stake claim for Ireland No 13 shirt
Tommy Bowe has expressed his delight at defying his scheduled return to fitness as he prepares for his seasonal bow with Ulster in tonight's Pro12 clash against Treviso
"It is great to be back," said Bowe (opposite), who underwent minor surgery last month on the wrist injury that nearly scuppered his chances of featuring in the Lions' summer series win in Australia.
Then, a broken bone in his right hand, sustained against Queensland Reds, seemed set to curtail his tour.
However, the fired-up Monaghan man, aided by a calcium-enriched diet, managed to slash his recovery time from eight weeks to just three and returned for the final two Tests.
After subsequently discovering he needed surgery to discover the extent of the ligament damage in his wrist, it was thought he could miss the opening games of the Heineken Cup and even Ireland's entire November series.
However, the 29-year-old has once again defied the medics and he will start tonight's game alongside returning Lions team-mate Rory Best.
"It has been a tough old pre-season with my wrist injury but I am delighted to be playing, delighted to be back fit again and looking forward to my first game at Ravenhill with the two new stands up," said Bowe.
Hooker Best suffered an even more capricious Lions tour than his colleague; after being deemed unlucky by many to be originally omitted, his subsequent woeful form when called in to replace the foul-mouthed Dylan Hartley did much to undermine his supporters.
"It has to be the pinnacle of my career," said the genial Banbridge part-time farmer. "Yes, I was disappointed with some of the aspects of my performance and immediately post-tour I maybe reflected too much and thought too much about that.
"Now I've had more time to think about it and as my career goes on, I'll think about it more positively. I grew up as a boy and young teenager watching great Lions teams playing in the southern hemisphere. To have been part of a Lions touring squad and to have played and captained the midweek side is special.
"Also, to be in the changing-room after the third Test when you are lifting the trophy to mark only the fifth Test series triumph ever... I think it is very special, something I'm very proud of."
The duo's return backbones an Ulster side that sees seven changes to the line-up that defeated Connacht 18-7 last weekend to record their first win of a fitful opening to the season, particularly compared to the whirlwind of 12 months ago.
There are a couple of tasty selections: the effortlessly smooth Jared Payne gets a chance at No 13 – notably, with Luke Marshall inside him – to display the gliding features that have lit up Ulster's team in recent times – features that may, in time and in tandem with Marshall also perhaps, light up Ireland's back line from that very same position.
Payne's normal berth at the back of the house is taken by Craig Gilroy, getting a chance to show he can harness versatility (and greater defensive awareness) to his undoubted natural talents as a jinking speedster.
There are other changes but the retention of Iain Henderson is notable; lock clearly is the position being earmarked for him in the defining games of Ulster's season.
In their last three visits, Treviso won two seasons ago during Brian McLaughlin's reign, drew another, and suffered a heavy defeat.
Ulster have not lost successive games at Ravenhill since April 2010, and after the dramatic late concession against Glasgow a fortnight back, they know that they will have to produce their best form to win.
"It will be difficult, that's for sure," admitted Best. "Treviso have a fairly good record at Ravenhill in recent years, so they'll not come here with any fears."
And they come here with an unchanged squad, buoyed by last week's win against Munster. They won't win here but it could be quite the tussle.
Ulster – C Gilroy; T Bowe, J Payne, L Marshall, M Allen; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Best (capt), R Lutton; I Henderson, D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, C Black, B Ross, L Stevenson, N Williams, M Heaney, J McKinney, D Cave.
Benetton Treviso – L McLean; L Nitoglia, M Campagnaro, A Sgarbi, C Loamanu; M Berquist, E Gori; M Rizzo, E Ceccato, A De Marchi; A Pavanello (capt), M Fuser; S Favaro, A Zanni, M Vosawai. Reps: F Semenzato, A Di Bernardo, I Fernandez-Rouyet, D Budd, R Barbieri, G Maistri, P Di Santo, A Bernabo.
Ref – I Davies (WRU).
Ulster v Benetton Treviso,
Live, BBC 2, 7.05