Tommy Bowe expects 'difficult' test on Ospreys return
IT will be a 'homecoming' of sorts for Tommy Bowe tomorrow evening as the Ulster wing lines out against former club Ospreys for the first time since returning to his native province in the summer of 2012.
A variety of injuries and international commitments have prevented the Irish international winger from playing against the region where he spent four years of his career and so he is relishing a return to the Liberty Stadium.
"This is our sixth time against them in the three years since I've been back and this will be my first time to actually get to play them," said the 30-year-old.
"I'm looking forward to getting across to Swansea, to get back to the Liberty Stadium again, but I'm sure it will be a difficult match.
"It's a tough one for us after Europe at the weekend but we're up for it."
Bowe enjoyed the most successful spell of his career to date in West Wales - scoring in a victorious effort in the first Magners League Grand Final of 2010, reaching the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup the same year, and contributing to another Ospreys league success two seasons later.
It was also during his Swansea sojourn that he won a Grand Slam with Ireland and earned the first of two call-ups to the Lions.
Understandably therefore, the Monaghan man has many fond memories of the time.
"I had a super time over there. I went when I was 24, was there for four years," he said. "I absolutely loved it, thought the rugby was brilliant and it definitely brought on my game.
"It'll be great to catch up with some of the boys that I played with, the people round the stadium, and the supporters too. "It was nice to just try something different. I lived in Swansea for three years, Cardiff for one, and it was brilliant."
Given the length of time that Bowe, whose partner Lucy Whitehouse hails from Cardiff, has been away from Wales, he does not necessarily think he'll have much in the way of insider information but there are still some players he knows well.
"If this is my first time playing them in six games it could be the boys who are offering me tips," he joked. "I don't think I can offer too much but, little bits and pieces I think I'll try to slip in and help out where I can."
While tomorrow is a game of great personal significance for the 56-times capped international, he remains acutely aware that it is of huge importance to his team.
With the Pro12's top six all facing off against each other this weekend, and a host of big fixtures to come over Christmas, the table could really take shape as we enter into 2015.
Presumably with no festive pun intended, he commented: "I think it's going to be a real cracker game. "After the weekend we really need to fully concentrate on the league.
"Winning the Pro12 has become our number one goal now and I think this weekend could be a real statement if we can go over there and get a victory.
"The Ospreys are at home, and it's a difficult place to go and win, but we've done it before and hopefully we can do it again."
While Ulster won the reverse fixture 25-16 last month, Ospreys were without their Welsh internationals, while Bowe and Rory Best played for Ireland against Australia the next day, and Steve Tandy's men have also since been boosted by the signing of Dan Lydiate to a dual contract with themselves and the Wales Rugby Union (WRU).
The flanker (pictured below) is in line to make his debut tomorrow and Bowe feels that his 2013 Lions team-mate will be a big addition.
"If Dan does get his first game, it would be a massive signing for them, he's a quality player.
"Rhys Webb, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar, these are top, top quality players so they'll add hugely to the team that played here (the Kingspan Stadium)."
Following the Swansea contest, Bowe - along with the rest of the Ireland contingent - will head to the annual national camp as Joe Schmidt continues his preparations for the defence of the Six Nations title and a World Cup in 2015.
Despite the IRFU's player management practices, the Monaghan man does not necessarily assume that his participation in the Ireland camp will automatically rule him out of the upcoming interpros against an ever-improving Connacht at the Kingspan and Leinster at the RDS.
"We're into Irish camp at the end of this week but with the interpros coming up we could hopefully still be involved," he explained.
"We're obviously looking at this weekend first and foremost but we'll take it from there afterwards."
A huge game in Ulster's season, thoughts of contests to come, not to mention the small matter of Christmas, will have to wait until after the final whistle.