Tommy Bowe: I loved flirting but I wasn't a heart-throb back in school - I was one of the dorky kids
Andrea Smith hears Rugby star Tommy Bowe talk about love, life, settling down with a beauty queen and sneaking out of school to the sound of blaring alarms FraNK: Tommy told Andrea how competition for places in the Irish rugby side drove him to perform; inset left, his beauty queen girlfriend Lucy, who is also a nurse
'I DON'T get much sympathy in our house, unfortunately. As a nurse, Lucy looks at enough sick people during the day, so the last thing she wants to do is worry about me and my bloody sniffles.
"She doesn't know anything about rugby and isn't a fan, and the last thing I want to do after training is talk about it, so it's nice that we can have conversations about random stuff that have no real relevance to our jobs."
I'm having tea in the Gibson Hotel with Irish rugby international Tommy Bowe (30), and I have just asked him if his girlfriend Lucy Whitehouse's bedside manner is as good at home as it is on the ward.
It was Lucy who spotted a potentially serious problem when she was practising her nursing skills on Tommy and realised he had very high blood pressure.
While the winger initially joked she wasn't very good at her job, he eventually visited the doctor, who discovered a large bruise that had developed in the fat surrounding Tommy's kidney was causing a bloodflow problem. Removing it meant a six-hour operation.
"I must have taken a whack in my kidney area at some point," Tommy says.
"It was odd -- not your normal type of injury. You don't expect fit, healthy rugby players to be running around with high blood pressure.
"Having it removed wasn't the most pleasant experience, no."
Lucy and Tommy met through a mutual friend when he was in Wales playing with the Ospreys team.
It took a little bit of persuasion for the pretty former Miss Wales to even agree to go on a date with him, but now that he is playing for Ulster, Lucy has moved over to live with him in Belfast.
"Rugby players in Wales don't have the best reputation," Tommy says. "Maybe she thought I was just another a***hole.
"When she finally agreed to meet me, we hit it off. She thinks I'm okay now. I liked the fact she was lovely and very down-to-earth.
"Moving to Belfast was a massive step for her because all of her friends and family are in Wales, but she has taken it really well.
"The beauty of it is, Wales is so close, so she can go back and forth very easily and her friends and family come over."
Tommy is from Emyvale in Monaghan, where he lived with his parents, Paul and Ann, and his younger brother and sister, David and Hannah.
They were a sporty, close-knit family. He probably wasn't the most enthusiastic student or the best-behaved, he admits, and he wasn't even considered to be one of the main sports stars at his school, the Royal School in Armagh.
He started there aged 11 and boarded during the week. I ask if this meant he was treated like a king at home at the weekends.
"Ah yes, you were royalty until they got fed up with you and sent you off again," Tommy tells me, laughing.
"It would have been very tough to have been there all term because you wouldn't see your parents, but just weekly boarding was great.
"Once I got over the homesickness at the start, I loved it because you were pretty much just spending your days with your best mates.
"Whenever you go off at a young age and have to fend for yourself a little bit, I think it makes you quite independent."
The school was a mixed one, and while there were barriers put up between the two areas of boarding, the handsome Tommy recalls how the boys would chance sneaking out at night with "alarms going off and teachers going mental".
Being in a class with girls taught him to mix with the opposite sex, although he swears he wasn't one of the school hunks.
"I was one of the dorky kids," Tommy says. "There were other heart-throbs in the school, and a couple of my mates would definitely have fancied themselves ahead of me.
"I think that I always enjoyed female company, and it was a bit of craic to have a little flirting going on with the girls that were in your class."
Tommy went on to obtain a degree in construction engineering at the University of Ulster in Belfast, and he thought that he might go into property development.
While he was studying, he got into the Ulster Rugby Academy, and although it was difficult balancing studying with trying to break into the Ulster and Irish teams, he somehow managed it.
Tommy's first cap for Ireland remains a real stand-out moment for him as was winning the Grand Slam in 2009.
Winning the Six Nations recently was another high spot for the team, but Tommy was disappointed to be out with injury.
He has had several mishaps over the past two years, but he says that injury often just can't be avoided in rugby thanks to the huge collisions and the sheer size of the players involved in the game.
This, he admits, greatly worries his poor mother, but, unfortunately, it's just an occupational hazard.
He broke his hand just last summer, for example, when the British and Irish Lions won the Test series against Australia, and then had to have three screws put in it.
While he has become hugely successful, Tommy says that his biggest challenge was being dropped from the Irish team in 2007.
"I didn't make the World Cup that year, and I was struggling and kind of going backwards," he says.
"I talked to very close friends, family and coaches to establish where things were going wrong.
"I had to go back to basics, and I changed my game and got more involved, but it has been something that I constantly think about.
"Being on the wrong side of a team and not getting into the team is what motivates me now to be at the very top of my game."
So does he worry about his position in the side when there are always other talented and younger people coming up behind him?
"Big time," admits Tommy, "and because I missed out on the Six Nations this year, I have the likes of Andrew Trimble, David Kearney, Fergus McFadden and other guys who are also battling for those positions.
"It's theirs at the moment, and it's up to the likes of me now coming back from injury to try and fight to get my spot back."
Tommy says that Brian O'Driscoll's retirement will leave a massive hole in the team because he has been the poster boy and main man, both in Leinster and in Ireland, for the past 15 years.
"But in saying that, I think that what the Six Nations has shown us is that there is an abundance of talent in the team," he adds.
"Now there are young and old players battling for every position on the team, and that can only be a great strength for Irish rugby going forward."
Given that playing professional rugby is a relatively short career, Tommy, sensibly, has a few other irons in the fire.
He is excited about the Train with Tommy competition, which is being run in association with Subway and Independent.ie.
The promotion will see an under-18s rugby side win a training session with him and training gear to the value of €2,000.
"Healthy eating is a really massive part of being a professional sportsperson," Tommy says. "It's incredible the amount that we eat as sportspeople.
"I'm going to take the winning team up to Belfast for a training session, and we will have nutritionists there to talk to them about healthy eating too."
Tommy tells how some players have to take a bunch of grapes to the cinema because they don't eat sweets, whereas other players can eat as much as they want.
So it helps that Subway now has subs that have less than 350 calories.
The sport star is also involved with the fashion brand Lloyd & Pryce, which has a collection of cracking male and female shoes called The Tommy Bowe Collection.
On top of that, he is doing a management course online with Hibernia College in Dublin, which is run in conjunction with the University of London.
"Andrew Trimble from Ulster is also doing it so we can swap notes," Tommy says. "He's a great student, so he's a good fella to copy off!"
So he's not afraid to talk about his girlfriend, has an interest in fashion, and is regarded as the one of the most fanciable men in Irish sports. Could Tommy Bowe possibly be the perfect man?
I ask him if his team-mates give him a much of a hard time about his growing sex symbol status.
"Oh Jesus, there are a lot of the boys on the team who think they're more of a heart-throb than me, so I have competition there," Tommy tells me. There are definitely a few who fancy themselves. I wouldn't put out any names, but I'm sure you could guess!"
For competition details: log on to www.independent.ie/trainwithtommy, upload a picture of your team and explain in 250 words why you need a training session with Tommy