'I'll be more nervous than if I was playing' - Tommy Bowe tackles PRO 14 TV role
Pre-season has been very different for Tommy Bowe this time around, yet when the lights go up this evening he will feel more nervous than he has for many an opening night.
After more than a decade performing at the highest level, the 34-year-old Monaghan man is taking on a fresh challenge as the face of eir Sport’s coverage of the Guinness PRO14.
Plenty of his former team-mates have made themselves at home in broadcasting studios in recent years, but Bowe is taking a different route – one that few former sportspeople have mastered over the years.
Answering questions is one thing, but leading the conversation, linking the action and reading the auto-cue requires a whole different skill-set.
Pressure is nothing new to a man who won 74 Test caps with Ireland and the Lions, but that doesn’t mean he is immune to the same first-day feelings as the rest of us. “I’ll be sh**ting myself!” he says with a smile as he surveys the studio that will become his arena over the next nine months.
“I’ll probably be more nervous than I was going out to play a match, because I am used to that. I don’t know if I’ll be as nervous as I was on my first cap, but it’ll certainly be up there. The camera is on you, you are one on one with the camera trying not to fluff your lines.
“But I played my best rugby when I was relaxed, when I enjoyed it. If I mess up my lines... I’ve made so many howlers on a rugby pitch that are a lot more costly... I’ll try to stay as relaxed as I can, but I am nervous.”
Unlike many of his team-mates who didn’t see their retirement coming, Bowe was able to go on his own terms despite being hit with a succession of injuries in the latter years.
That gave him an opportunity to weigh up life after rugby and, while he’d given punditry a go, he knew it wasn’t for him.
“I was very fortunate, I got to play for 15 or 16 years. A lot of guys I played with had to finish through injury and that just came with the territory,” he explains. “But to see people who are not prepared, that’s a big step off a cliff.
“I knew my contract was up, I made the decision at the start of the year that it was going to be my last year.
“It gave me an opportunity to enjoy it and I actually played a lot of rugby. It gave me the chance to make the most of it, but also to plan for what I’m going to do after.”
A post-‘Question of Sport’ chat with the BBC’s Sue Barker opened his mind to presenting and, after getting experience on RTÉ’s travel show ‘Getaways’, he signed up for the whole hog.
“This role is something I’ve probably had in my mind for three or four years,” Bowe says. “I’d done the punditry role and enjoyed it, but there’s no longevity in it, you’re there until the next guy retires and then you move on.
“Also, it’s not a huge challenge – maybe when you go away from the game for a couple of years it becomes one, but when you’ve lived and breathed video review session; to go in and talk about that should be relatively simple.
“Having to do it now with someone in your ear, having to read an auto-cue or pose the questions as opposed to being the guy answering them is something that really interested me.”
Invariably, there will be moments of controversy across the season and while he won’t be the one pointing fingers, Bowe will be tasked with asking hard questions and steering the debate.
He learned to avoid reading too much of his own press after picking up the paper the morning after his Ireland debut and finding himself falling back to earth with a bang, but he says he won’t shirk from tackling big issues.
“Dad collected me at the Berkeley Court, we were going to visit my cousins and we stopped to get the papers and went straight to the scores of the players,” he recalls.
“I can’t even remember what my score was, but I remember it said, ‘Took his try well, but is he fast enough for international rugby?’ – something like that. You’re on cloud nine, nothing can touch you and then you read that and start questioning yourself.
“Mark McCall pulled me aside after I didn’t make the squad for the (2007) World Cup in France and I was probably reading too much into it, getting a bit down. I wasn’t myself. If I made a mistake, that was game over pretty much. If I dropped a ball at the start at full-back, you’d want to take me off.
“He was one fella who put his arm around me early on and said, ‘You need to find a way of brushing this off’, one of those ways was not reading it, trying to avoid it until I got the confidence to try and avoid it.
“It’s going to be a new thing for me, but I like the opportunity of being the Devil’s advocate... not too much, but just what I find interesting and push on those matters.
“We want to promote the game, PRO14 rugby and try to promote the provinces, to try and get people to enjoy the games.... (But) it’s important to not pussy-foot around it, you have to be able to address serious questions.
“You see (Gary) Lineker, he is seen as Mr Nice Guy who never got booked but whenever something needs to be addressed he is well able.”
That’s Bowe’s new challenge as he begins performing under a new set of lights.