Ulster need silverware to take step to next level, insists Bowe
Such has been the dominance of Munster and, subsequently, Leinster in Europe since the turn of the century, Ulster's pretensions to become the pre-eminent province have always remained a nebulous concept.
Tomorrow evening's result in Belfast could declare Ulster's intentions as something more than an intangible ambition, should they ensure that Leinster, for the first time in a decade, have nothing to play for in the month of May.
In the near decade since Ulster last climbed the winners' rostrum, when David Humphreys kicked them to Celtic League glory in the pre-play-off era (2006), the northerners have managed an admirable consistency.
Unfortunately for them, it has been a consistency that has resulted in a now routinely familiar inability to close out the deal.
Viewed in the context of purely league form, they have all but matched Leinster stride for stride, winning just four games fewer than their rivals over the last five years and 85 games (57 as opposed to 61).
Two of those extra Leinster wins have occurred in the past two seasons in the semi-final and final respectively; Leinster, in contrast, have reached all five league finals, winning three of them.
Add to that their thumping 2012 Heineken Cup final win and it is easy to see why Ulster would be more than satisfied to maintain their own league title push, with the added bonus of removing their perennial bete noire from the picture entirely.
"They've obviously had a good record over the last couple of years of putting an end to our hopes of silverware," winger Tommy Bowe says with weary recognition. "We always have a good history with them. Unfortunately, over the last couple of years, we've definitely been on the wrong side of it.
"This is an enormous match for us. We want to be playing for a home semi-final. To do that, we pretty much have to win the remainder of our games and beating Leinster would be a great start to that run.
"For us to win that will make it difficult for them to get into the knock-out stages. So, yeah, it is a double-edged sword."
Until they do their talking on the pitch, the talking off it remains merely hot air; three times in a 20-minute chat, Bowe refers to the desperate need for Ulster to be taken seriously.
The only way they can affirm this want is by winning silverware; it is a circle they haven't looked like squaring in recent times, regardless of what may be perceived as a slew of near misses.
Should Ulster lose tomorrow, a fiendishly difficult run-in and the likelihood that Munster will take five against Treviso, could see their Kingspan final hopes hinge on an away semi-final in Thomond Park or Swansea.
Then, Bowe and Ulster's grand ambitions, displayed this month with the audacious capture of All Black Charles Piutau, which has had the English clubs fulminating, would be sorely tested.
"I've seen bits of him from Super Rugby," says Bowe of Piutau who will pocket a salary of €700,000 when he pitches up in Belfast in July of next year. "He's a class player. I've spoken to Jared Payne and Joe Schmidt about him and they speak highly of him.
"He's 24, in his prime and he will be a serious signing for us going forward. It's another bloody winger, I'd be hoping he'd be a full-back!
"But it's a huge, huge message for what Ulster Rugby are about. Making a big statement by signing Charles Piutau is a real sign that we mean business.
"We want to be pushing into that top tier of European rugby."
Bowe left Ulster in frustration at their inability to consistently deliver; while at Ospreys, he doubled his Celtic League medal haul and, while he doesn't fling them off the dressing-room wall a la Joe Kernan, he is anxious to consummate his repatriation with newly-minted silver.
"We have been knocking on the door for a long, long time," admits Bowe, who flourished away from Belfast, doubling his medal haul but also winning a Grand Slam with Ireland and becoming an influential Lion in 2009.
"For us to be taken seriously, we've got the facilities, we've got a super coaching team and another great coach coming in, but at the end of the day trophies and winning things is what a team is graded on.
"I want to win silverware with Ulster rugby and I think we are in a good position to do it this year."
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