The lift doors opened at the Hilton and Rala, the bag man, gagged and bound on a luggage trolley, was pushed out onto the ground floor packed with Irish fans – that was how Tommy Bowe and Ireland prepared for the biggest game in Irish history.
Tommy Bowe looked back at his team-mates, they formed a broad semi-circle behind him, as he somehow had found himself nudged out in front, like a reluctant sacrifice in a pagan ritual. He looks left and right wondering where the support was going to come from, there’s none forthcoming. Not his captain, Brian O’Driscoll, not Paul O’Connell, not even Rory Best, his Ulster colleague. He shakes his head, disappointed that the players, the friends, he’d been with through thick and thin, the highs and the lows, weren’t there for him. ‘Come on now boys,’ he says. To a man, they avoid eye contact, looking at their feet, until finally Tommy accepted his fate and began the first line, ‘What about her eyes…’ and with that the crowd of 17,000 Irish rugby fans, including the Irish president, erupted in central Dublin. Coupled with the millions watching on TV, Tommy was a sensation. Google it now, and you’ll see his rendition of The Dubliners The Black Velvet Band has more than 100,000 views. His try that helped secure Ireland’s Grand Slam the day before? Just 40,000. “It was probably both the stupidest and best thing I’ve ever done,” says Tommy of his impromptu singalong, in which none of his team-mates joined in. “It was Donncha O’Callaghan’s fault. After every match of the Six Nations, we’d always go to a post-match function and we’d always end up in a huddle with the players and their partners. Denis Leamy was a brilliant singer and we’d always look forward to him singing, but for some reason, to annoy him, I’d always start singing ‘What about her eyes…’ just before he started – it would make his blood boil, so I kept doing it.
“So when we were up on that stage in front of all those people, Donncha had already told the MC I’d sing a song, so I got royally tucked up, there were thousands of people and it was live on TV – Louis Walsh wasn’t on the phone after that one.”
The Six Nations 2009 Grand Slam had arrived the day before, after a 61-year wait and far too many near misses. “Eddie [O’Sullivan] had been unfortunate,” says Tommy. “Ireland had had two good opportunities to win the Grand Slam before, but France scuppered them both. They’d won the Triple Crown, so were knocking on the door.
“Sometimes it’s just a new voice, something new within the system that creates a bit of a spark.”
That something new seemed to have been the Heineken Cup-winning Munster coach Declan Kidney. With France, Italy, England and Scotland despatched, the Slam could be completed against reigning champions Wales. Considering Ireland had only ever won a single Grand Slam, and that was just three years after the end of World War II, it could’ve been easy for things to get to Tommy and his colleagues. “Declan was very good at distracting people from the magnitude of what this actually meant,” explains Tommy, “I don’t think I even knew that Ireland hadn’t won a Grand Slam in 61 years.
“I remember the night before, we were all in bagman Rala’s room,” he continues. “He’s a legend of a man, a top, top guy, and he’d always have his room open, plastic laid out on the floor, and loads of gummy sweets, chocolate, studs, laces, and polish. It was routine that the Irish guys would go to his room the night before a game to give our boots a clean, it was just something of a distraction, have a bit of chat, bit of craic, eat some sweets.
“For some reason, I think it was [Ronan] O’Gara who rang down to the porter to bring a luggage trolley up to the room while someone else grabbed a load of tape from the physio. We basically ended up grabbing Rala, tying him up, gagging him with tape and putting him into the luggage trolley. We were in the Hilton, so we went down to the ground floor in the lift – and at this stage the place was full of Ireland supporters – and as the doors opened we pushed him out into the middle of the floor. The poor receptionist, she didn’t know what to do – and that was our preparation for the biggest game in Irish history.”
The Irish squad were in good place. As the team bus followed the police horses to the ground, the nerves did kick in for Tommy, “there was green everywhere,” he says, “and you saw everyone drinking their pints and kind of wishing you were out there with them, it was all the nerves ahead of the big game.”
In the first half, chances go begging for Ireland, while Stephen Jones never misses for Wales, taking the hosts into a 6-0 lead. “I remember Les Kiss [Irish coach] pulling me to one side saying, ‘get your hands on the ball, you’re looking dangerous so get involved’.”
Five minutes in, he does just that, getting on the end of O’Gara’s kick over the Welsh defence, which bounces into his arms. “It was a pre-planned move,” he says, “but it bounced up nicely, we knew they’d be narrow in defence and, as good as he in attack, there was always a chance of getting behind Shane Williams. The ball didn’t land where we wanted it to, I was meant to catch it on the full, but that was probably the most important try I’ve ever scored – when I announced I was retiring, that was the one they all mentioned, because it was such a big win for Irish people. So many people remember where they were when Ireland won that Grand Slam.”
Surviving a last-ditch Jones penalty attempt to rescue the game, Tommy had helped Ireland make history, wining 17-15. “I didn’t get much sleep that night,” he admits, “myself Geordan Murphy and Merv Murphy [the analyst] didn’t go to bed, we had a lot of bottles of Champagne! And then the next day I sang in front of the whole country.”
Singing isn’t on Tommy Bowe’s CV, but probably only because there isn’t room. Presenting, retail, flying, business, journalism, there’s barely space for the rugby. We meet him at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast, roughly eight months after his final 12 minutes of professional rugby – when he was Ulster’s finisher in a 24-24 draw away to Munster.
Since then he’s been presenting a travel show – his first summer as a retired player took him to Seattle, Porto, Lanzarote and some local Irish hot spots – fronting Eir Sport’s coverage of the Pro14, and helping to run a shoe and fashion business he started up with two friends from back home in County Monaghan. “We’ve got a footwear brand called Lloyd and Pryce, which is now in our eighth year, the shoes are going well,” he says. “A lot of players go into pubs and restaurants but this was something completely new.”
Four years ago, they set up a clothing brand too, “it’s called XVKings and we’re in about 120 stores now, we do two seasons a year – autumn/winter and spring/summer.
“Now I’ve retired, I want to go and visit a lot of the factories, get involved in design, but the big thing for me at the moment is getting out to visit the store owners. Before, it was a rugby player that had a brand, but now the rugby player has retired so I need to show them that the brand will live on.”
With a degree in construction engineering and a post-grad diploma in business management already under his belt, he’s now finishing off a journalism diploma. Unlike many, Tommy had been ready for retirement for some time. “I was lucky enough to be able to plan it,” he says, “I could do a countdown, so I knew when it was my last contact session, when it was my last home game, I was able to appreciate it more.
“I made the decision because I knew I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says. “I couldn’t do it to the same level. There were a few moments, one of them was against Cardiff Blues.
“My strength had always been about hitting good lines – being able to hit a good line and dissect and go through a gap. I remember seeing the gap, I got the ball at the right time, but I got scragged – one of the props got a grip of my jersey.
“You also know at training, you’ve got guys like Jacob Stockdale coming through and other young guys who just jump straight out of the car and run onto the pitch, whereas I’ve got to be there 20 minutes beforehand, to get warmed-up and get the old joints and hips moving to feel ready to train.”
By the time he retired, Tommy had been able to map out his career by the injuries he had, such was their frequency. “I’ve had some bad injuries over the last few years, I think I missed four of the last five or six Six Nations through injury,” he says. “It’s hard to keep track of the years I was injured and when I wasn’t, it’s happened that much.”
It hadn’t always been like that for Tommy. Growing up in County Monaghan, he’d never been picked for Irish schools or been on the radar, until a stunning performance in a trial for Ulster Academy – itself a fallback plan having failed to get the right A-Level results for his university place at Heriot-Watt. “They gave me the trial as a wildcard,” he admits. “I had a stormer, then I played for Ulster under-19s, that went well, I scored a couple of tries, and it went from there.”
Ireland under-21s followed, then Ulster first team, then a first Ireland cap against USA – only six games into his senior rugby career, aged 20. A try on his debut, two more caps and another try on a tour to Japan – in 2005 Lions year – and Tommy was starting three Autumn Tests, which included the All Blacks and Australia. He was on his way. Six Nations was next.
Tommy didn’t think they awarded anyone zero out of ten. “I thought you’d get at least one just for running on the pitch,” he says. After making a try-scoring Six Nations debut against Italy in 2006, after facing France, his international career came to a shuddering halt. “I had a shocker,” he says. “One of the Irish journalists gave me zero out of ten in the paper – I don’t think I did that bad. I didn’t do that much wrong, I missed a tackle at the start against Cedric Heymans, and he went on to give it to Rougerie to score a wonder try in the corner.
“I think we were 29-3 down at half-time and I got the blame for a lot of it – I don’t know how I could when I’m on the wing. That said, I got taken off after 50 minutes and Ireland staged a comeback so maybe I was the problem!”
The zero out of ten did leave its mark on Tommy, although in the age before social media took off, he’d done all he could to avoid seeing it. “I knew this wasn’t going to be a game I’d want to see the highlights of,” he says. “But I remember thinking right, I’ll keep my head down, stay away from the coaches, get back to Dublin, train, and move on.
“There was no social media then, I didn’t read the papers, so after the game I had a few beers to drown my sorrows, then went back to the hotel feeling a bit sorry for myself, I was still ready to get prepped for a big week. It was then I got a text from a good friend from Monaghan, saying, ‘mate, what a bollocks that journalist is, giving you a zero out of ten’. I’d avoided the comments all day, and it was typical it came from a friend – it didn’t help my confidence.”
He can laugh now, but at the time, the performance saw him effectively cut adrift by Ireland. “I was out of the squad for about two years,” he says. He did get a chance in two Rugby World Cup warm-up games later that year, but faith had been lost. “When a coach loses confidence in a player there’s nothing that player can do, they just can’t seem to get back into the good books, just look at Danny Cipriani in England – everyone says he should get picked but he doesn’t fit the mould of what Eddie Jones wants,” explains Tommy. “That was was myself and Eddie O’Sullivan, we weren’t seeing eye-to-eye. I thought I was playing well at Ulster – Mark McCall was my coach – we’d won the league around then, but I just couldn’t get myself back into my team.
“It came to a head when I missed the world cup, that was a real hit. All the way through I was always in the 30 squad, but then I missed out and Brian Carney, the ex-rugby league player, had been picked to go to France instead of me.
“Yeah, that hit me hard,” he repeats.
He sought the help of psychologists and altered his game, to ensure he got more time on the ball, he also announced that he was leaving Ulster to join Celtic League rivals Ospreys. “I hadn’t been selected for the Six Nations, my contract was coming up, and this offer came from Ospreys so I thought I’d try something different. Ospreys had Shane Williams, Nikki Walker and Lee Byrne, so I thought if I could get myself into that Ospreys team maybe then I can show them what level I’m at.”
Even before he’d played a game for Ospreys, the decision paid dividends as he was called up for the final game of the Six Nations, against Scotland. He scored two tries and his Ireland fortunes changed, perhaps helped also by a change of personnel, with Declan Kidney replacing Eddie O’Sullivan after a disappointing world cup. “When Eddie was there, he was mad about Trimby [Andrew Trimble], then Declan Kidney came in and I got ahead of Trimby,” he says. “Then when Joe came in we were both kind of neck and neck. Sometimes coaches just want a certain thing from certain players and unfortunately if the face doesn’t fit, you can try and get yourself into the squad, but it doesn’t work.”
Moving to Wales doesn’t really qualify as gap year adventures, but it’s still not Ireland, which makes it a huge move for some. “It was the biggest risk I took in my whole career because it wasn’t the done thing,” says Tommy. “Nobody really left the Irish provinces, particularly anyone around the Irish team. I think Ulster realised it wasn’t about Ulster, it was just something I’d always wanted to do.
“I’d wanted to travel abroad and I know Wales isn’t the other side of the world but it is different. I hated the Ospreys as they had a huge rivalry with Ulster but I knew they had a great team, 13 Ospreys had been involved when they’d beaten England and Lyn Jones and Sean Holley just painted a brilliant picture that inspired me.”
He also knew that staying in the Celtic League meant that he’d be playing an Irish province once every four weeks, so he could stay on Kidney’s radar.
Settling in quickly, his first meeting involved a beer and barbecue with Mike Phillips and Gavin Henson, and the ‘all you can drink for £12’ nights at the local club made his new home a hit with visiting friends and cousins.
On the pitch his playing reached new heights, his form leading him to win Ireland Player of the Year in 2008, and then winning the Celtic League title, finishing top try scorer and player of the year in only his second season with Ospreys.
Off the field, he was equally high flying. “I was rooming with Ian Gough, the second row, and he was looking through this magazine, like Auto Trader but for planes,” he says. “It turned out he was a pilot and was thinking of getting a new plane! He’s actually doing his helicopter license now, but he was an unbelievable pilot, he did flying – upside down, loop-the-loop and all that. His friend ran the flying school at Swansea Airport, so I started to have lessons in these little two-seater microlights – flying along the Gower Peninsula and landing on fields and beaches.”
Taking weekly lessons, initially with an instructor, he had a few nervous moments. “I’d be absolutely shitting myself whenever he took his hands off the control and I was in charge,” he says. “It was a proper plane but for two people – like a lawnmower with two wings and a little motor in front. It was a little plane though so every time a gust of wind hit you, it could blow you ten metres either way – you’d be coming down on the runway dead centre and then you’d get blown right off course.
“You’d get up to about 3,000ft and it can pretty nerve-wracking, I’d actually be a bit scared every time I even drove to the airport,” he continues. “The first time you go up on your own that’s terrifying, and then you also have to do a PFL, performed forced landing. So you’ll be flying along, and then your instructor switches off the engine and you have to find a field or a beach, somewhere to land your plane! You radio-in where you’re going and then try and glide yourself in.”
Landing safely every time, Tommy had success on all levels during his time at Ospreys. The international career that had been resurrected, led to the 2009 Grand Slam – and poor Rala being held hostage – and that led to the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. “I felt like a new person,” he says. “The Lions had never really been on my mind because I’d not been with Ireland, but after that Six Nations, all of a sudden, I could be getting on that tour. “I’d watched that ‘97 Lions video 20 times, and that 2009 tour was special as well, a lot of people who went on it who’d been on tours before – like Drico – said that tour was the best.
“Paul O’Connell stood up at the beginning of that tour and said to the squad, ‘look guys, you can stay in your cliques if you want, but if you’re going to maximise this short time together, then make the effort to sit down with someone you’ve never spoken to before, go for beers together, go for coffee, sit down for breakfast together, make the effort. We had beers on that first night as a squad just to break down the barriers because it can be hard when you’ve got guys who are rivals, don’t see eye-to-eye and were kicking lumps out of each other two weeks before.”
Although they lost, memories of the camaraderie on tour – not to mention the Test atmosphere, matched only by the 2009 Grand Slam, are as vivid as ever. “When you bump into each other in 20 years time those are the times you’ll remember,” he says.
Injuries began to hit, some small, some big, some lasting a week, some a season. Six Nations appearances became patchy, often missing whole campaigns. “I’ve had a lot of injuries,” he says. “I had to have surgery on my kidneys, my knee, my groin – I had to go to America for surgery on that – my hand, I broke my hand with the Lions, thought I was going home and ended up getting back playing and on the pitch in three weeks, that was a tough one.
“I’d hurt my knee playing against Northampton, got myself back into the Ulster team and got picked for the Lions in Australia.
“I was in Australia, feeling good, my body was feeling great, my parents, my brother, sister, and Lucy had arrived for the game against Queensland Reds – and then all of a sudden they saw me coming off the pitch, holding my hand.
“I thought it was dislocated so I kept yanking my finger, and thinking ‘this isn’t getting any better’ but it turned out to a spiral fracture so the bone had split down the middle.”
The doctor said it was going to be surgery, so I was going to have to go home, but an Australian surgeon said, ‘if you can put up with a bit of pain, I can put three screws into that and have you back on the pitch in three weeks’.
He convinced Lions coach Warren Gatland to keep him on tour, had three screws bolted onto his bone, and was back on the pitch for the Second and Third Tests of the winning series.
As he recalls his final seasons, he tries to plot the moments with the injuries. “It’s funny trying to keep track of the years I was injured and those I wasn’t, it’s happened that much,” he admits.
The one that did most damage was near the end, the quarter-final defeat against Argentina in 2015. “That hurt like hell because I got tackled just behind the knee and I overextended,” he says. “I went over the top of it and felt the ligaments go, it took me eleven months to get back properly from that.”
His return to the Irish squad came against Scotland in 2017, and was one of his proudest achievements. “I’d worked my butt off to get myself there, and I remember singing the anthem in Murrayfield and thinking how much I needed to appreciate this.
“Training was never my forte, but I remember Joe Schmidt saying that I trained my way into the team, I gave it everything, I bust my arse,” he says. “I did extra video analysis, I did extra work on defence, I’d talk to Andy Farrell, talk to Joe about how could I get better, what could I do?
“I literally put everything into it, because I knew my knee probably wasn’t at the level I needed it to be, so I had to do everything.”
He came off the bench against Scotland, made a high tackle and was yellow carded. Dropped for the next two games, he returned against Wales. “It was at about 79 minutes and 12 seconds, Jamie Roberts scored under post for Wales to pretty much win, and I got the call, ‘Tommy you’re on’ – I thought, ‘79th minute, great,” he recalls. “I ran onto the pitch, think I touched the ball, then the second time I got it, I hit the ground, Jamie Roberts landed on my leg and I could feel it snap.
“I knocked the ball on, and I remember hearing Wayne Barnes [the referee], saying ‘scrum down Wales’, and I said, ‘Wayne, I think I’ve broken my leg’ and he said, ‘Tommy, you’ve only just got on’, ‘Yeah, but I just heard it snap’. I’d come on the pitch at 79 minutes and 12 seconds, and I was on the trolley going off the pitch at 79 minutes and 40 seconds.
“I was barely on the pitch for 30 seconds and that was the last time I played for Ireland,” he continues, “people saw me going off on the cart and they were going, ‘I didn’t even know he was on the pitch, did he just come on the pitch to wave goodbye to everybody?’.
“As I was going off on the cart, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, because it must have been about 15 months previous to that I was on the exact same cart, with the exact same doctors being taken off at the Millennium Stadium when I hurt my knee against Argentina.”
Remarkably, the break had been so neat, it didn’t even seem to hurt. “With the broken bone it was weird,” says Tommy, “my fibula just broke and snapped, a clean break, it just bent and I felt something go ‘crack, crack’ – but it wasn’t that sore. When you’re on the pitch, the adrenaline is going and I’m sure if I’d been on the street I would have been in agony, but there was a lot of emotion getting back on the pitch at the Millennium Stadium, a stadium I love playing in.
“People were wondering why I was going off with a smile on my face, but you could do nothing but laugh at it, it was the shortest stint anyone’s been on the pitch for a Six Nations match.”
He also knew it would be the last time he’d wear the green of Ireland. “I think, to be honest, for me, I had the realisation that that was it, I’d really had to give everything to get myself back into the Six Nations squad and get myself onto the team and play.
“I’d had so many injuries and frustrations over the last few years that there was nothing more I could do, so I might as well savour coming off the pitch here, and move on. That was the moment I thought this was the end.”
Words by: Alex Mead
Pictures by: Daniele Colucciello