Monday 19 February 2018

Bowe: This group is very focused, very together

Provincial problems won't hinder Ireland's Six Nations defence, insists Tommy Bowe

Saturday is likely to be Tommy Bowe's first Six Nations game since the St Patrick's Day defeat to England. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Saturday is likely to be Tommy Bowe's first Six Nations game since the St Patrick's Day defeat to England. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Over in Wales, they took their klaxons and sounded a declaration of war, but at the Ireland team-base the Six Nations week got off to an altogether gentler start.

If Warren Gatland's bold decision to stir things up by naming his team for Friday's mouth-watering opener against England in Cardiff two days early added further fuel to the hype machine, the champions are happy to keep things low-key.

It was business as usual on an international Monday as team manager Mick Kearney laid out the largely favourable state of play when it comes to injuries, before senior player Tommy Bowe talked through the week to come in his normally measured way.

As champions, tournament favourites and the side who performed best out of the northern hemisphere teams in November, Joe Schmidt's side are in a remarkably serene place going into their opening game against Italy in Rome.

Given they will certainly be without their starting out-half Johnny Sexton for the first game and have others working their way back to fitness, it is no harm that they kick off down the billing.

Limelight

England and Wales will hog the limelight all week, while the emotion of the first French international in Paris since the Charlie Hebdo attacks is sure to capture the imagination when they place Scotland on Saturday evening.

It means that if Ireland can get their job done as professionally as they have throughout Schmidt's time in charge, they can move on to the bigger clashes to come with even more players.

For Bowe, Saturday is likely to mark a first Six Nations game since the St Patrick's Day defeat to England at Twickenham in 2012.

Despite his absence from the Championship, he is an established Schmidt-starter who has played an influential role in November games. Like the rest of the squad regulars, he knows and trusts the system.

The provinces might have gone backwards this season, but Team Ireland is now back in operation.

"There is a togetherness when we come into Ireland camp. I wouldn't say it is a huge amount more than it ever has been," Bowe said.

"Whatever it is at the moment it is certainly working. We are all singing off the same hymn-sheet.

"When you come to Ireland camp, it is a different kettle of fish down here. You switch off from your provincial set-up very quickly. It's very much a case of getting to know everybody again, getting in to the swing of things, getting to know your calls and patterns of plays.

"Everybody comes from different angles, but it is certainly is a very focused, very together group here. That's what we try to build.

"There will obviously be disappointments and maybe people lacking a bit of confidence after performances but the two performances leading into this Six Nations - Munster against Sale and us against Leicester - we can take a lot of confidence from those over the next couple of weeks."

With Schmidt now firmly established after 18 months in charge, coming into camp is a familiar experience and everyone is aware of the standard the New Zealander expects from those selected.

While the core of his starting XV has remained largely the same since the defeat to New Zealand in November 2013, the frontliners are not resting on their laurels.

"When we go out on to the pitch, we're told that if you're taking it easy or relaxing, that's when you slip up and that's when someone else gets the chance," Bowe said.

"If someone gets their opportunity in this team and they play well, then you're going to be a long time waiting to get back in.

"That competitive nature is driving this team forward. The competition for places is phenomenal right throughout the team.

"Look at the back-row, the back-three, the centres - it would be very difficult for us or for anyone to pick a team at the moment, it's a strong position we're in going into a very difficult competition.

"The strength in depth is what we need, because there is going to be injuries going through it so hopefully that works in your favour.

"That's what drives you, with the players that are playing in your position that are always constantly trying to take that position, you're trying to take that position.

"Having watched last year's competition with Andrew (Trimble) and Dave (Kearney) playing so well, Fergus McFadden too - that sort of competition, the need to fight for your place and the will to get back into the jersey again is what drives us as players."

Tough

Bowe conceded that watching his rivals help Ireland to win the Six Nations last season was a "tough" experience, even if he ultimately wanted his teammates to succeed.

"Missing the last two Six Nations has been tough," he said.

"I've been fortunate enough to play in November internationals which is super.

"With the southern hemisphere's teams coming to Ireland, there's always that buzz, but it doesn't compare with the Six Nations.

"It's what you grow up watching, the excitement of it and the buzz certainly around the country shows that. I've missed being involved in it. It's tough having to watch it."

Not that he's complaining about the style of play, which has come in for some criticism for its conservatism since the November clean sweep.

Schmidt has railed against the perception that his side have a set way of playing, describing it as a "misnomer" and Bowe says fans can expect more of the same approach that proved so successful in 2014.

"I can't see there being too much of a difference, to be honest," he said.

"We've been very successful over the last couple of years or so and I can't see there being huge changes. Small changes for different teams might be made, maybe, throughout the campaign, but certainly at the minute it's similar to what we did back in November."

One notable difference will be the return of Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy as well as the emergence of Iain Henderson as the tournament goes on.

In November, the absence of that trio deprived Ireland of go-forward ball, forcing them to rely somewhat on their kicking and chasing game, while also limiting the platform that Bowe and the outside backs could attack off.

"It's massive," the Monaghan man admitted.

"If we can get a pack with ball carriers like that who can get us, not only to the gain-line, but well over as Sean, Cian and Hendy have proven over the years. . . for a backline, that's the kind of platform that's exciting to play off, having guys of that calibre coming back is exciting."

With all of that added fire-power and a schedule that suits, there are plenty of reasons for Ireland to be confident.

Just don't expect them to shout it from the roof-tops.

Irish Independent

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