Tommy Bowe recalls his GAA days with Monaghan and Emyvale
WITH his A-Levels approaching, Tommy Bowe didn’t envisage sport playing the major part in his life that it has.
Schooled in Armagh, he tried every sport going in his younger days. Soccer, golf, tennis, athletics, even horse riding. Like most young men from rural county Monaghan, Gaelic football was high up the list.
From when he was able to kick a ball, he spent his summers playing for Emyvale’s underage teams. The winter could consist of rugby for Monaghan, who were based in the county town.
By the time he was a minor, everything else had fallen between the cracks. A prominent member of the county’s under-16 and under-17 squads, his station fluctuated between midfield and centre-forward.
A crack sprinter – as his rugby career has shown – he would have taken the game to the heart of the opposition defence with his pace.
There was a but, though.
“I was a terrible shooter. They’d give me the ball and I’d run with it and get fouled, and someone else would take the point.
“I’d run straight towards the goal and almost straight into the goal. I wasn’t a bad passer of a ball, but I had a desperate shot.”
He recalls playing alongside Dessie Mone, Paul Finlay, Stephen Gollogly and Vinny Corey during his younger days.
Most of the former team-mates have either passed through the system now, or never made it.
The afore-mentioned quartet toiled for a decade and more before they finally tasted real success, winning Ulster titles in 2013 and 2015.
Bowe was present to see the Anglo Celt lifted in Clones three years ago. Ulster’s last trophy came more than a decade ago but pangs of regret were never a likely occurrence.
“I don’t know whether I would have made it. I probably would have given it a go for a little while but chances were I was going to go abroad at some stage, to study abroad or whatever.
“Whether I would have had the same opportunity to keep involved in football, I don’t know. These things work out in funny ways.
“Who knows, I could have ended up back home working for my old man and then I’d definitely have been in the thick of training down there.
“The way it all worked out, I was very fortunate I got to stay in Belfast and rugby became a career and a reality for me.”
It was at 17 that his Gaelic football days effectively ended. He did tog out for a league game with Monaghan minors but contrary to legend, he never actually played for them.
The further up the ladder he got, the more conflict became inevitable. Monaghan wanted him to train in the winter. The winter was rugby season.
The choice to school at Royal Armagh, thirty minutes from home but north of the border, was an indication of where his sporting career was headed.
While his Monaghan team-mates were focussing on MacRory Cup campaigns, Bowe was honing his skills with the oval ball, playing in the Schools Cup at full-back
“It got to the stage where I was in school in Armagh, I’d come back and train with Emyvale minors, but Monaghan minors wanted me to train during the winter.
“That was rugby season and at that stage, I had to make the decision whether I stick with rugby at school, or go back to train with the minors. At that stage, rugby was my first love, and I stuck with it.”
As 10-year ticket holders for the Five Nations games at Lansdowne Road, Bowe’s heroes were predominantly in the green and white of Ireland rather than the blue and white of Monaghan.
His father Paul was a former second row who won a Leinster Senior Cup schools medal with Newbridge and played colours rugby for UCD. An avid rugby man whose love of the game rubbed off.
But just around the time he had to choose between rugby and Gaelic football, Tommy Bowe didn’t think his sporting career would go very far.
He didn’t make the Ulster schools team in his final year and but for the disappointment of his A-Level results, his life could have followed a completely different path.
“To be honest, at that stage, between Gaelic or rugby, a career wasn’t really an option,” he said.
“Rugby had turned professional but at that stage I was struggling. At that stage rugby didn’t look like it was going to be a career for me.
“I was going to head off to Scotland to study over there. It just happened that my A-Levels didn’t go as well as I’d hoped and I ended up staying.
“Allen Clarke, who was head of the Ulster academy at the time, approached me to ask if I’d stay in Belfast and get involved in the Academy, and study at Jordanstown.
“The way it worked out was very fortunate in a way. But when I was 17 or 18, sport didn’t really look like it was something that would have been as much a part of my life as it has become.”
Backing into David Strettle last Saturday, using his weight to hold his position beneath the high ball, the memories of his days in a Monaghan jersey came flooding back.
Positioning himself beneath Ruan Pienaar’s kick-to-nothing midway through the first half of last weekend’s win over Clermont, the Emyvale native’s feet barely needed to leave the ground.
Highlights from Ulster's 39-32 victory over Clermont. Video from @ChampionsCup
With the kind of watchful eye any Allstar midfielder would have been proud of, he fetched the ball above Nick Abendanon and falling, popped it up for Iain Henderson to round him and score.
Time hasn’t allowed him to stay quite as close to the GAA roots as he might have liked. He kept a close eye from afar as Emyvale won an Ulster junior title in 2013, but most of the friends he had in the club when he was growing up have moved on.
To play in Croke Park with Ireland fulfilled a life’s dream though. He was to score five tries on Jones’ Road during Ireland’s temporary stay there, including their last at the venue in a Six Nations defeat by Scotland in 2010.
His sister Hannah – who also played for Monaghan at underage and would go on to become an international hockey player – had beaten him to it when she played in a half-time game during an All-Ireland ladies’ final involving Monaghan.
“Getting to play for Ireland in Croke Park was maybe something that maybe crossed off that. I grew up playing football. To get the opportunity to play in Croke Park was always something I wanted to do, and I was lucky to get to do that with Ireland.”
Hannah’s commitment to hockey ensured that her big brother always appreciated rugby’s literal professionalism, as opposed to the unpaid professionalism of amateur games in the modern day.
“The training they’d put in, the hours on top of work, it shows how fortunate we are to be professional sports people. I know Hannah would have trained as hard as we were here, plus working a full shift on top of that.
“I know chatting to a few of the Gaelic lads, they’re the exact same. It puzzles me how they’re able to do it.
“I don’t know whether I’d have had the commitment or if I’d have been able to do it. I’m not the best trainer as it is, and I wasn’t growing up,
“I’d like to think I would have [made it] but realistically I probably would have just enjoyed the social side of it, enjoyed the craic and going out playing with my mates.
“But to put in the commitment that they do plus hold down full-time jobs, you can’t have anything but complete admiration for them.
“It’s serious commitment, especially the guys who are the top, those guys are pretty much professional athletes. It shows the way they’re playing. The fitness levels and skill levels are phenomenal.”
33 in February, he’s back in the Ulster team after injury and will remain in Joe Schmidt’s thinking for the Six Nations. From there, the possibility of another Lions tour is still a realistic one.
When it all comes to an end, would he consider a swansong in the white and black of Emyvale?
“They’re too fit for me, I’d struggle to keep up. I might go to full-forward. I certainly wouldn’t be going to midfield.”