Thursday 14 December 2017

Zero to hero

Bowe back to light up Six Nations, but the dark days of being a punch-bag for pundits haunt Ospreys winger and his family, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor

This weekend will see plenty of bruised egos and tarnished reputations across the nation as the results roll in from the polls.

If Tommy Bowe fancied a fresh career challenge he could do worse than offer himself as an image consultant for politicians in need of a boost.

After all, he has risen from punch bag to poster boy himself over the last five-year election cycle.

The Monaghan man is riding a PR wave that kicked into gear in 2009 and shows no signs of abating. The world of top-level sport is as fast moving and fickle as that of politics and few know more about it than Bowe.

Parachuted directly into the Ireland team as soon as he was fit this week, the Ospreys winger has become a key figure and one of the most recognisable faces on the national team.

The gongs have followed his often epic performances and it's rare to hear a bad word uttered against the always genial star. But speak to his family about his popularity and the memory of the dark days rise to the surface quickly.

His stock was once so low it had relatives terrified to open the newspapers after matches.

He was once awarded 0 out of 10 for his performance at the Stade de France in the 2006 Six Nations by a former international writing in a Sunday newspaper. Described as "the worst winger Ireland have picked since Jack Clarke and that's pretty bad," he had "no pace" and couldn't "do anything else really."

Bowe didn't make the next year's World Cup. Brian Carney did.

Ask professional rugby players about bad reviews and they will often tell you that they are their own worst critics and don't read the papers.

But while they can shield themselves from the negative vibes, it's harder to get away from when you're a relative sitting in the stand or reading about your sibling, son or daughter's limitations.

Bowe's sister Hannah, herself an Irish international hockey player, admits that some of the criticism had her in tears as her big brother was savaged for what was perceived as his lack of pace and passing ability and she reckons one of his greatest achievements has been getting people on his side.

"Some of the stuff you were reading about him would have had me in tears every now and again," she admits. "But now he can't do anything wrong, he's come on that much and put the effort in, so there's hope for all of us."

The family might have tried to hide it from Tommy, but they didn't do a very good job. Players might try and immunise themselves from criticism, but it's hard to enjoy your grub when the entire room is walking on eggshells.


"I'd go around to my cousin's house in Dublin and have a bit of breakfast and they're all trying to put on a brave face and smile," Bowe recalls. "Inside I know that they know that I've had a shocker.

"It's difficult, it has to be difficult for parents or family to read or hear about one of their family and obviously around me they try and have a positive approach, but it's them who are being questioned by their friends and other people about what went wrong, so I'm sure it has a massive effect.

"When you do take a knock it does hurt you mentally of course, but it's a case of how you bounce back. Over the last while I've been able to bounce back quite well from any of the knocks I've had before. That's professional sport, at the end of the day. Everybody takes dents to their confidence at different stages and it's about how you come back again."

The results must be multiplied by the investment the Bowe family have made in their children's careers. There are not many families that can boast internationals in two different codes and while Tommy is looking forward to this year's World Cup, Hannah has qualification for the London Olympics on her mind.

Both pay tribute to their parents' input, driving them between training sessions and matches as they took on whatever they could get their hands on. For Tommy, soccer, Gaelic football, tennis, golf, horse riding, swimming and athletics were on the agenda, while badminton, athletics, soccer and Gaelic football vied with hockey for Hannah's attention.

"When we were washing up, Dad used to throw cups across the table at you and you learned to catch them or you were in trouble otherwise," she explains. "We were never pushed, both Mum and Dad played sport, but never killed themselves and had a few medals to show for it. I've no idea what is behind it, but it has worked."

Tommy agrees, saying: "Both our parents loved sport. My Dad would have been a rugby player, he enjoyed the social side as well. My mum's big into horse riding, she's still very keen on that.

"When we were younger we were encouraged to play a lot of different sports to see what we felt suited us best. That gives you the extra impetus when you know they are on the sideline you don't want to let them down."

That support and the all-sports approach has seen the duo reach the heights in their respective fields. Competing all the time has helped steel Tommy for the life of a professional sportsman. He has a tendency to bounce back from adversity -- and always had, as his sister explains.

"I got capped before he did. It was quite a difficult time. I was 15, he was 18," she says. "Everything went badly for him and he fell out of favour for a few years. It was hard at home for a while because we had to watch it and I remember distinctly the day where he got the cap for the U-21s, it was huge and I was over the moon for him."

He took his knocks and came back stronger and below the relaxed demeanour lies a fierce competitor -- as Scotland will find out on Sunday.

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