RUGBY FEATURE: I thought it was ‘game over’ but three weeks later I was playing in a Lions Test decider: Tommy Bowe

Tommy Bowe celebrates after the Lions secure a Test series win over Australia, his right hand still bandaged having fractured it a few weeks earlier
Tommy Bowe celebrates after the Lions secure a Test series win over Australia, his right hand still bandaged having fractured it a few weeks earlier

The pinnacle for any player in the Northern Hemisphere is to be selected for a British & Irish Lions tour.

Held every four years, the cream of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English rugby join forces to face one the Southern Hemisphere nations, New Zealand, South Africa or Australia.

Ireland and Ulster winger, Tommy Bowe, who confirmed this week he would retire at the end of the current season, was on two Lions tours - South African in 2009 and again to Australia in 2013.

Bowe’s inclusion in the 2009 tour came a year after he had only established himself in the Ireland set-up - but when he was part of the Grand Slam winning side in 2009, the then Ospreys player was an automatic choice for the Springbok tour.

He played in all three Tests, but he also scored the first try of the tour against Royal XV, going on to score three more times during the tour.

The Lions went on to lose the series to the Boks 2-1, and Bowe remembers the massive disappointment from that.

“Firstly it was fantastic to get on that Tour,” enthused Bowe, speaking exclusively to the News Letter.

“I roomed with Stephen Jones and I remember him saying to me about three days in - ‘Tommy, this is going to be a great Tour’.

“Everyone bonded so well. I remember one night after training - and I had to come down the stairs on my backside I was so sore. The competition for places is intense and even though you are fit, you really push yourself.

“The following day we were due to go on one of those bonding exercises like sailing, and to be honest no one could be bothered they were just so sort and tired - they just wanted to chill our and relax.

“I remember bringing Stephen a cup of tea as he lay in his bed around 9.45pm and we got a text to say the next day had been cancelled and all meet in the hotel bar at 10pm.

“So we got into our gear and gingerly down the stairs again, wondering what was coming up.

“There was Ian McGeechan and the coaching staff and a whole load of pints just set up.

“It was just great, having a drink with the likes of Joe Worsley and players you would never have ever thought you would have a drink with.

“It was a surreal moment in many ways, it was a great night and it was a super start to the tour.”

The Lions had been expected to push on after the Test series was levelled, but they just came up short.

“Finishing up losing the series was one of the most disappointing moments in my career,” said Bowe. “It was a massive, massive disappointment because it was such a great group of players.

“But it was also one of the most amazing times of my life. I had only ever dreamed of playing for Ireland, never in my expectations did I think I would play for the Lions,” he beamed.

Four years later, and now back playing with Ulster, Bowe was to get the call to go to Australia for the 2013 Tour.

“It was a bit of a surprise to be honest to get the nod. I had suffered injuries that season and had not played in the Six Nations,” explained Bowe.

“But thanks to a lot of people I managed to be up and running again - but I remember the day of the announcement well because Rory Best, who should have been named on the squad, had not been included. I remember thinking he deserved to be going more than me!”

As it turned out, Best was called into the squad following Dylan Hartley’s suspension, but two games in it looked as though Bowe’s Tour was over.

“My parents, sister, brother and Lucy (now wife) were there and I hurt my hand in the second game,” said Bowe.

“It was not good and I remember talking to the medical staff afterwards and their hopes were perhaps less than mine.

“An x-ray revealed a spiral facture and I made the decision to have surgery there rather than come home and have it.

“I remembering texting my dad saying ‘Game Over!’ I thought it was the end of the my tour. But when we spoke to the surgeon he asked when I needed to be back playing. First Test was in two weeks.

“The surgeon said, I have done a couple of these operations on Rugby League players and if I could stand a big of pain, I could possibly be playing in three weeks. Warren Gatland decided to keep me on the Tour.

“I met mum and dad in the team hotel and said ‘it is not over yet!’

“I had the operation with three screws inserted and the stitches done upwards so it would heard quicker.

“I then had the most intensive rehab on my hand for two or three weeks. It was simply non stop.

“I got back into training and after two weeks i played in the second and third Tests.

“It was unbelieveable in many respects from thinking my tour was over to playing in those last two games and winning the final Test to take the series victory - something which the Lions had not some for some time.”