Winging it in the skies
Tommy Bowe is happy to chase kicks all day if Ireland keep winning, says Brendan Fanning
Long before Tommy Bowe was making his debut for Ireland, against USA in November 2004, we had a plant in the Welsh camp. By that stage Simon Easterby was a fixture in Llanelli, midway through a career that would stretch in all to seven Tests against Wales. Right on cue, as Easterby was winding down his Ireland career, Bowe shifted from Ulster to the Ospreys and the seamless transition was all set. So thereafter, at least once a year Bowe would have microphones stuck under his nose to answer questions on what it was like mixing week to week with fellas he would have to go out and play against for his country.
Maybe it's because he was a high-profile, try-scoring back, or perhaps it's just because of his outgoing nature, but it's as if Bowe was always the go-to man on things Welsh. And we need one, for we have always had something going on with Wales, either on or off the field.
In the 1970s when they were almost untouchable, they'd come over here and beat us out the gate, and then stay for the weekend boring all within earshot about how good they were. In the new century there was a different story to tell: from 2001, Ireland won nine out of 11 meetings, most emphatically the 54-10 drubbing in Lansdowne Road which hastened the exit of then coach Graham Henry.
Off the field they've tried to ditch us a couple of times as well, looking to escape Celtic rugby in favour of play dates with neighbours closer to home. You suspect England are as keen on having the Welsh over on Saturday afternoons as Westminster is on having Stormont a part of the empire.
Whatever, Bowe's four years in Ospreylia - as they like to call that region of south Wales taking in Neath and Swansea - gave him an insight on how a country can be largely awful at club level yet reach comparatively dizzy heights in the international game.
"It's hard to put my finger on it," he says. "At regional level, they have a lot of very talented young players. In their academies, a lot of their forwards are able to pass like backs. They're talented guys, and I think that whenever they bring them into Wales, they come together - I suppose they've had a very settled squad for a long time, with a relatively simple game-plan but work extremely hard and if they can execute that game-plan, they know exactly where they have to be on the pitch every time. So it makes it easy for them to get around the park, to know exactly where they are, so if they can get their strike runners into the game…? And certainly whenever Wales get to the gain-line in that sort of pattern, they're very hard to deal with."
Has there been no attempt though to get the regional sides playing that style of rugby?
"There was, but as you've seen over the last couple of years, the disharmony between the WRU and the regions - they don't see eye to eye. It's better now in the last couple of years but when I was there, as soon as the players came back from Welsh camp, it was: 'You're not in Welsh camp now, this is the way we do things here, this is the way we play.' And at times I suppose it was frustrating, because you could see how successful they were with Wales.
"But each club wanted to build their own ethos and play a certain style of rugby and maybe it would have been wiser to use the Wales pattern because it is very effective when done right."
Certainly Warren Gatland thinks so. He copied and pasted his pattern onto the Lions template two summers ago in Australia, for a series win, and for Ireland Bowe has been on the receiving end of the 'Gatplan', with just two wins from his six Tests against Wales, all on the New Zealander's watch.
"They're probably the hardest defeats I've had as well - to lose when I was playing over there? We won over there in '09, for the Grand Slam, which was great. It gave me some bragging rights but after that but there've been bad losses, and then obviously the quarter-final of the World Cup which was probably the toughest of them all.
"Probably the worst of my career, I'd say: the hardest to take. I've had a couple of very disappointing results at different times but that one - having topped our group, beaten Australia? I think we were coming into the game in a good place. We'd beaten Italy comfortably so I think we were feeling confident. Listen, we can't complain, Wales were the better team that day; they played us off the park and scored a couple of good tries, but that was one we felt we let slip. Maybe they felt like they were underdogs. Certainly the way they started the game, we were kind of on the back foot the whole match."
It can't have been great fun fetching up for work again in Swansea when the tournament was done and dusted?
"It was tough: it was going back chatting to the Welsh press, everyone bigging up Wales and how exciting it was for them. It was just a kick in the stones. We felt that it could be our chance to kick on and get to a place where an Irish team had never been - a semi-final - and potentially beyond that. And we still feel that we let it slip a bit. So to go back to the Ospreys? You had to be gracious and say: 'Yeah, they're playing well; they've a great chance.' But yeah, it was a tough one at the time."
Bowe had a different role in that Ireland team. They looked to him as a try-scorer, a finisher, a good footballer and powerful runner to cause a bit of havoc in the opposition defence. The job spec has changed a bit under the new regime.
Where previously his aerial ability was seen as the gravy on top, now it's in the meat and two veg league. In a system designed to protect the property that is the Irish half of the field, he chases a lot more than he carries.
"Of course I'd love to be carrying the ball, scoring tries, making yards, line-breaks, that's the real enjoyment part of the game but when it comes to a team performance? We go out there and some of the plays we have can put me into space, but when an opportunity comes like it did at the weekend - when we were getting good dividends from putting the ball behind and putting the team under pressure - I think it's a strength of my game, a part of my game that I've worked hard at over the years and that I know I'm good at.
"If it comes to a game and that's what I've got to do - to chase kicks and put teams under pressure, try and force turnovers - I'm delighted to be three wins from three in the campaign, to be a part of that.
"But, if the opportunity came to sling the ball out wide and give me a one-on-one or to go for the corner, that would be of course that bit better again. When that time comes, hopefully I'll be ready for it."
In the meantime he's doing what he's told. It's good value listening to Bowe moan about Robbie Henshaw popping up on his wing last weekend for the game's only try, just as the wing had wrapped around the other side in the hope of getting a run in open country. And to listen to him clarify what should be the bleeding obvious: to be on a winning charge like this, causing teams real concern about how they will deal with what Ireland have to offer, is valued time.
"I enjoy this," he says, picking up on the increasing chatter about Ireland's less than beautiful game. "I chatted to Alan Quinlan at the weekend and he half mentioned it and I said I have been part of an Irish team that have lost to France badly, and lost to England many times as well, you want to win in your jersey, want to win for Ireland no matter what. If that means playing rugby that people find a bit less attractive, I'd be more than happy to be going on a 10-match winning streak. At times within that winning streak we played some good rugby. Just in the last game or two we have resorted to a few ways of putting teams under pressure that they haven't been able to deal with."
If he was still in Wales he knows the dressing-room banter would be putting him in the 'boring, boring Arsenal' category. That chant gathered momentum in 1992/93, which the Gunners finished with the FA and League Cups. They seemed happy enough with that, as doubtless Bowe would be if Ireland pick up two trophies this season. And thankfully he's not in Wales anymore.
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