The alarm chirps for the first time at 4.15am, signalling that it’s time for Tommy Bowe to begin his day. He’s midway through a fourth season removed from the day-to-day grind of professional rugby but the 37-year-old’s sleep schedule is more militant than when he was a nailed-on starter living in Ireland’s Carton House bubble.
Bowe has more TV facetime now than he did when running in tries at the Aviva Stadium, with his co-hosting gig on Virgin Media’s Ireland AM requiring a level of bed-time dedication reminiscent of the detailed approach Joe Schmidt demanded from every player who wore green.
The former Ulster and Ireland star mentions that he had to drag his four-year-old daughter Emma away from a birthday party recently, not because she was tired – but so her dad could adhere to the 9pm curfew required to start the following morning’s journey from his home in Belfast to Virgin’s studios in Dublin.
Breakfast television is quite a departure from how Bowe spent this time of year for the guts of a decade, sequestered away with his Ireland team-mates planning their annual assault on rugby’s most iconic tournament.
His role in Ireland’s first Grand Slam triumph in 61 years ensures his place in Six Nations history is forever secured, but since ending his playing career in 2018, Bowe has enjoyed his new life and doesn’t pine for the days of cheering fans, Ryle Nugent and TOMMMMMMY BOOOOOOOOWE.
“I don’t miss rugby,” Bowe says as he makes the familiar drive home to Belfast.
“Live TV ticks a lot of the boxes that rugby did for me. It gives you a similar adrenaline rush to when you were playing.”
Bowe’s seamless transition to civilian life was helped by the perfect post-playing bridge, as he went straight into a role with eir Sport covering what is now the URC. It let him stay involved with the sport on a week-to-week basis and take a leap forward in his career, while stepping out of the line of fire after 15 seasons on the field of battle.
“Going into rugby broadcasting with eir was exactly what I needed. I was reading the papers every day, I was on top of who was getting picked and who wasn’t. I was getting my rugby fix but wasn’t having to play, and it gave me the skill of learning something new – but I wasn’t getting the s**t kicked out of me every day.”
Bowe may have moved on from his playing days with the speed that propelled him to more than 120 tries for club and country, but the rest of us can indulge in a bit of nostalgia on his behalf. Considering where he ended up – as an Ulster, Ospreys, Ireland and Lions standout – it’s worth taking a look at where he came from. To say Monaghan doesn’t produce many rugby players is cutting the word ‘many’ a good deal of slack.
Bowe’s birthplace is something he refers to often when describing the unlikely course his career took.
The facts are that Bowe was 20 and just two years out of Royal School Armagh when he made a try-scoring debut for Ulster against Connacht in April 2004. So far, so good.
A few months – and provincial caps – later, he dotted down for another debut try, this time for Ireland against USA at the old Lansdowne Road. You’d be forgiven for thinking we were into youth prodigy territory at this stage but Bowe bats away that idea emphatically.
“I wasn’t a child superstar coming up through the ranks,” he says.
“I didn’t play Ireland schools. I barely made Ulster schools. I only got taken into the Ulster academy as a wildcard, but things really accelerated fast for me and I got my first Ireland cap at 20 after only five or six games for Ulster. I was a guy from Monaghan, being picked at a time where Ulster didn’t have many guys getting picked for Ireland.”
The first few years in green were tough for Bowe. Two more caps came in the summer of 2005 in Japan while Ireland’s Lions were away, followed by a full November series before he made his Six Nations debut against Italy in 2006.
Despite crossing for a try that 100pc would have been ruled out with today’s fastidious TMOs – Bowe loved a debut score, repeating the trick with the Lions and Ulster in his second stint – he was quickly in the crosshairs of George Hook’s scattergun in the RTÉ studio.
Hook’s declaration that the young Ulsterman had no pace followed him around for years, and after a poor display the following week against France in Paris – Ireland trailed 43-3 at one stage – Bowe was cut loose by Eddie O’Sullivan and couldn’t force his way back into the team for two years.
In the meantime, a World Cup passed him by – and while you might think he dodged a bullet in missing a four-week stay in a French industrial estate, it was still a defining heartbreak in his career.
An assessment of his game with Mark McCall, now of Saracens but the Ulster head coach at the time, proved crucial in developing Bowe into the ultra-dangerous try-scoring predator that feasted on defences throughout Europe and holds the Irish record for most professional tries.
After a tumultuous few years, Bowe had a few areas that he needed to address to unlock his full potential.
“To be thrown in at the age of 20 for my first Ireland cap really came as a bolt from the blue,” he says.
“It was daunting and I probably got thrown into things a bit too early for what I was ready for psychologically.
“George Hook said I wasn’t fast enough. When you are young, something like that hangs in the back of your mind.
“Then when I didn’t get picked for the World Cup in France, that hit me hard. It was the first time I wasn’t in a squad for a number of seasons. I went back to Mark McCall and he boosted up my confidence and encouraged me to come off my wing and search for the ball and be dangerous. To put my stamp on the game rather than let the game come to me. That hugely influenced me. I went to see a few sports psychologists as well, I was only 22/23.
“I finally got picked by Eddie O’Sullivan to play against Scotland in the Six Nations in 2008 when I thought I should have been in a while before that.”
Bowe’s two tries against Scotland at Croke Park cemented his place as one of Ireland’s starting wings, but the timing was interesting – a month earlier it was announced that he was leaving Ulster at the age of 24 to join the Ospreys.
It seems a lifetime ago when you look at the wasteland that is Welsh club rugby today but back then, Ospreys commanded places in the Welsh team like big kids claiming seats at the back of the bus. Thirteen of Wales’ Grand Slam-winning side from 2008 were from the Ospreys – but Bowe very quickly settled in as the standard-bearer.
With 37 tries in 73 games, he became one of the premier wings in the world, with a try-scoring outing in the RDS upset over Leinster in the Celtic League final of 2010 one of the better days.
If you needed evidence of Bowe’s learned ability to pop up all over the field, there’s 20-minute YouTube compilation of his tries that highlight it perfectly. In fact, in a lot of the clips he has an Ospreys jersey with 13 or 15 on his back, as his overall skill set continued to grow.
During his four-season stint in Wales, a Six Nations Grand Slam followed as well three Test appearances in the epic Lions bloodbath against the Springboks. He was at his peak.
“Between 2008/2009/2010 were my best years,” Bowe says.
“Around that Lions tour in South Africa, I really enjoyed playing in those matches. I felt really good and really fit, no injuries. After 2010/2011, little injuries started to creep in and hamper my performance and preparation.”
The middle year of the three Bowe lists as his best really was special, with his famous reception of Ronan O’Gara’s deft dink at the Millennium Stadium not only driving Ireland to a historic Grand Slam, but highlighting his top-end pace as Shane Williams was left with third-degree burns after Bowe scorched clear of his club-mate to touch down under the posts.
“We actually did a similar play early in the game and Tomás O’Leary sent in a low cross-kick, but I ended up chipping it over the full-back and into touch. I probably should have done better,” Bowe says.
“The ball from ROG was meant to go straight into my hands but the way it bounced between Gavin Henson and Shane Williams went perfectly in my favour.
“I might not have looked like I was going too fast because of the long strides but I was always up there in the speed scores. I would always have backed my pace and was confident in a situation like that I would finish off a try.
“There were a few times later on in my career, I think back to that James O’Connor one against Australia, and I was in quicksand that day!”
Bowe finally opted to step away after the 2017/’18 season after an injury-interrupted finale to his career, but his CV stacks up with almost any Irish player.
Only Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell have started more Lions Tests in the professional era, with Bowe also making an impact in Australia in 2013.
And yet, as he drives home from his new career, Tommy Bowe only wants to go one way.
“I don’t really have much time to look back on things. I’m doing a new job on TV and I feel like I’m at the early stage of it. I am absolutely surprised by how my career went. I talked to my dad recently and I definitely don’t think anyone in my family saw me going on to do what I did. I never dreamt of that.
“I look back on it and it feels like a different life.”