Saturday 24 March 2018

Bowe must prove he is back in the fast lane, bouncing bugs off his windshield

Ulster wing in familiar territory as he bids to fight his way back into Schmidt's big-match thoughts

Tommy Bowe: 'I know that the Romania game is going to be a big opportunity for me to put my hand up because the next two weeks are obviously huge'
Tommy Bowe: 'I know that the Romania game is going to be a big opportunity for me to put my hand up because the next two weeks are obviously huge'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Back in 1995, when Jonah Lomu announced himself on the World Cup stage, it was Canada outhalf Gareth Rees who came up with the line which best described what it was like for tacklers in the line of Lomu fire. "Like bugs on a windshield," he said.

The giant wing went into that tournament under the radar, and came out of it as the biggest commercial attraction in rugby. That's the beauty of the World Cup: get your lines right and you become the star of the show.

We never had anything like a Lomu on the wing for Ireland, but the next best thing has been Tommy Bowe. He is one of the handful of Ireland players who slips comfortably into the category of world-class, but these are strange circumstances for him. Today the opponents are Romania, a Tier 2 nation with a Third World feel to them, and to get his World Cup on track the Ulster wing needs to make them look like bugs on his windshield.

You would never have thought this. With Bowe, fitness was the only issue. Once he was upright and firing, the bullets always hit the target and everyone went home happy. He did it for Ireland when it was needed in Grand Slam and Championship winning campaigns. He did it for the Ospreys over four seasons where he was hugely popular with the fans at the Liberty Stadium, scoring a try in their Pro12 final win over Leinster in 2010. And it has been good enough to take him on two Lions tours as a Test starter.

And now questions are being asked. He is 31, an 11-year veteran of the international stage with 63 caps to his name. There is a memory of him in Paris in February 2006, eight games into his Test career and looking a bit lost. Hardly a unique position for men in green in that city. But nothing since then came close to the distance in Twickenham three weeks ago between Bowe and where he wanted to be. It's likely that every media report, as well as post-match bar-room analysis, featured his awful form. So he didn't even have to wait for the final whistle to know he was under pressure.

"Och yeah, I think so," he said yesterday. "I know the likes of Dave (Kearney), Earlsy, Zeebs, the boys have all been playing well and of course the England match didn't really go in my favour. It wasn't my best performance in an Ireland jersey. But I've a lot of experience in the green jersey, I've a lot of experience of playing at the top level so I know how to bounce back. I've kind of wiped that from my memory and the last couple of weeks I'm training with a smile on my face and hopefully I can bring that into the game tomorrow.

"It's something I have looked at (his performance). I have gone over videos, looking at areas I can work harder to be a threat so it's nice to have something like that to just make you step back, look at the bigger picture and get excited about what's coming up."

In the world of those looking at glasses half-empty or half-full, Bowe sees only the positive. A top-up and he'll be there. Seemingly, he arrived back to Ireland camp in the summer in less than peak condition, after his honeymoon. At which point Joe Schmidt reminded him of the crush to get into the World Cup elevator. Having got back on track he was then derailed in that warm-up game against England.

"I think just the English match and maybe the Scottish match before, I didn't really get my hands on the ball the amount I'd like to, even during in the Six Nations," he says. "I want to get involved, my strengths are with the ball in hand. How I go about doing that, I suppose I can only offer myself up but I need to get myself into opportunities where I can get myself on it."

Luckily for Bowe, he's not a scrumhalf or outhalf or some other class of specialist. So with Dave Kearney a certainty on one wing, Bowe can still bid for the other side of the field. That there is still a door open is something he appreciates.


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"I think that goes back to what I said earlier: it makes you go back to look at it, it gives you that little bit of a spur on to know the competition for places is tough here. Boys have trained incredibly hard in pre-season. To be pushed for a place has really made me sit up and show that I really want this and to play to the best of my ability.

"That's what Joe's looking for. I know that tomorrow is going to be a big opportunity for me to put my hand up because the next two weeks are obviously huge. I'm excited about it."

You have to go back to the Eddie O'Sullivan era for the last time Bowe would have been off the team-sheet when the names were read out.

"Yeah, it could have been back with Eddie alright. So a couple of years - but I've been there before and I bounced back from it and that's what I'd say: it's kind of a bit of a shock in a way but it's something that has been good for me as well.

"The squad was named and I had a bit of a chat with him (Joe) after it. Listen, there wasn't too much to talk about. I knew myself that maybe I had let myself down a bit and that I think he just said to me it's all there to play for. It's a huge competition, there's a lot of rugby to be played and I suppose I know myself the quality that I have. I want to be part of this Ireland team. If I'm firing on all cylinders I think I'd be a huge asset to the team and I'm looking forward to hopefully showing that tomorrow. A few of us have been given opportunities who didn't play last weekend so it's a huge opportunity for us to put our hand up to play well tomorrow and push forward for the Italy game."

In that case today's Test has very little to do with the opposition, and a lot more about how Bowe performs the kind of jobs that will hold up regardless of the opposition.

The last, and only, time he played at Wembley was for the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup. Despite the opposition this is a different level of pressure - perhaps not entirely new to Bowe, but he could be forgiven for thinking it was in the distant past. Joe Schmidt needs hard evidence that Ireland's most decorated winger is back in the fast lane. Bouncing bugs off his windshield.

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