- Lifestyle & Sports
- 14 Sep 23
So says oval ball legend Tommy Bowe as the world’s number one ranked team – that’s us, folks! – head to the World Cup. In addition to casting an expert eye over Ireland’s Pool B rivals and likely quarter-final opponents, he talks to Stuart Clark about new beginnings as a Virgin Media TV presenter; asking Leo and Mary Lou the hard questions; the RTÉ payments scandal; Mason Greenwood and lots, lots more.
If Leo Varadkar thought he was going on to Ireland AM last September to have a cuppa, a croissant and a cosy chat, Tommy Bowe soon put him right.
As the then Tánaiste responded to co-host Muireann O’Connell’s question about the government’s failure to introduce a rent freeze by saying, “I hope to see homelessness falling again over the course of the year…,” the former Ulster and Ireland rugby star cut across him with a “You hope?!” and then rattled off a list of housing stats, which left Leo squirming uncomfortably on the sofa.
Many an Ireland AM viewer messaged in to congratulate Bowe on the grilling with one noting that, “Tommy holds politicians to account better than 99% of ‘actual’ journalists.”
They have a point. When not waking the nation up Monday-Friday on Virgin Media One, the Monaghan man can be found promoting the XV Kings: Tommy Bowe Clothing line, which has been a nice little earner for the past ten years.
There are therefore no shortage of things to talk about when we meet up in the part of the Virgin Media Ireland building that’s normally reserved for their Champions League commentary teams.
STUART: A lot of professional sportspeople go on a pie binge after they retire, but you look like you could still tog out for Ulster.
TOMMY: I’ve gone in to television now – how many pounds do the cameras add? I was a never a big guy for training back when I played. I loved matches but hated the gym. I still hate the gym but like to keep fit, whether it’s getting out on the bike or stretching or a bit of yoga or tennis or golf. You retire in your early thirties so there’s a lot of living still to be done. I’ve had so many injuries and operations – my shoulder, elbow, wrist, knee, hip, groin, ankle – that I seriously ache after a session and beep going through airports a lot.
You played professional rugby for 15 years but your first sporting love was GAA, wasn’t it?
I was born in Armagh, but grew up in Monaghan which is where my sporting allegiances lie. I played football – either as a centre half-forward or midfield – up until minor level. I was the guy who couldn’t shoot for love nor money, but give me the ball and I’ll run and get fouled, and then Conor McManus would knock the ball over the bar. My dream growing up was representing Monaghan in Croke Park. That was it. It was only when I went to the Royal School in Armagh that rugby started to become a big part of my life. I played rugby in the winter season and, because they dovetailed perfectly, football during the summer. That was grand until with Monaghan I got to the under 17s/under 18s and they wanted me to train through the winter. At that stage, I had to make a decision, which was really tough. You see nowadays a lot of ten, eleven, twelve-year-olds having to focus on one sport, which is way too young. The parallels in different sports and the things you learn from them are massive. I wouldn’t have had the career I had in rugby if it wasn’t for Gaelic football – both in terms of the hand/eye coordination and catching the ball. The skill and fitness levels in GAA are huge and give Irish sports overall a massive competitive edge.
How did a Catholic lad from Monaghan end up in a very Protestant Northern Irish school?
The back story is that my Mum is from Kildare and my Dad from Waterford. Both went to study in Dublin but couldn’t find jobs in the different areas they were in, so he went to work for a duck factory in Monaghan, Silverhill, which is now the wagyu beef of poultry and my Mum got a physio job in Craigavon hospital, which is where the connection with the North started. While she was there, I came along
The village you grew up in, Emyvale, is just a few miles from the border with the North. Did The Troubles ever impact on you?
I never experienced any violence, thank God, but I’d travel back and forth all the time to my Mum’s work. There were huge British Army barracks just five minutes down the road from me. Going the backroads, where there are now bridges over rivers and streams, there were just gaps. You’d be driving across the border to Aughnacloy and there were RUC and soldiers hiding in the grass holding machine guns. Oftentimes, you were asked to get out of the car so they could check it but that was just the norm. I used to go down to my cousins in Dublin and think, “Oh, it’s great and peaceful here” but as a young boy seeing guns was kind of cool.
Did you get teased – or worse – at the Royal School for being one of the few ‘Paddies’ in class?
There was a very different slant on things – particularly when it came to history lessons – and there was slagging, but you get a thick neck from it and just get on with things. I’d been brought up in a house where there was no predjudice and you were told not to talk about politics or religion, so I didn’t find it hard mingling with people from different backgrounds to me. The other kids, to be fair, were fantastic and I had sport, which is one of the great common denominators, to break down barriers and help me settle in.
Ulster rugby has had a massive role in normalising North/South relations, and I love the fact that Leo Varadkar went to Windsor Park recently for a Linfield game.
I think he played it fantastically well, and so did Linfield giving him a jersey. If we want to see progress, some people are going to have to step outside the comfort zones they’ve been in and Leo doing that, well, what a role model. There’s no doubt that Brexit has made things more difficult, but there’s still 60,000 people crossing the border every day and leading intertwined lives. We’re constantly doing stuff on Ireland AM in Northern Ireland and vice versa. That openness and engagement is really good and then time will tell what happens.
Now that you’re a breakfast TV presenter, what time is your alarm clock set for?
This morning, it was five past four. It’s an early start but the discipline I had from rugby kind of follows through. I’ll stay in Dublin a couple of the nights and commute down the other days. Once I’m in bed by nine-ish it’s okay, although come Friday I’m completely knackered.
Was it always at the back of your mind to try and go into media?
Like most players coming to the end of their career – I was fortunate enough with all my injuries to make it to 33 before I decided to retire – I was trying to put a plan in place for what I wanted to do. A lot of the guys I played with are teachers, medical reps, working in tech companies or business development. For me, it was the Lloyd & Price shoes and XV Kings clothing brands, which is something I’m still heavily involved in – we’re selling in over 250 shops around the country – but isn’t a day-to-day thing like rugby was for me. A lot of the lads go into punditry, which doesn’t really interest me that much. I do a little bit of it which is a great excuse to get to games, but for real insight you need a Ronan O’Gara, a Johnny Sexton, a Brian O’Driscoll or a Paul O’Connell; a captain or a leader who was really in the thick of it and making the big decisions. I stood on the wing, waved to the crowd, caught the ball, fixed my hair and took all the plaudits. I’ve always been a talker, though, and someone who’s quite inquisitive and curious and thought that asking questions, as opposed to answering them, might be a nice way to do it. So, when I retired I did a Journalism diploma and then went to work for Eir Sport doing their rugby coverage. At the same time, I was on Ireland AM doing interviews about the clothes and an opportunity came up. Timing and luck have played a huge part in all of this.
Have you had any Alan Partridge moments?
The ‘ten siblings’ is the one that will stick with me for a long time (If you didn’t see it, it’s on YouTube, Ed.) but there have been countless others. I felt a bit Partridge-y today doing the cookery segments with Catherine Leyden, but we had such a laugh. I could be sitting behind a desk and punching numbers into a computer. Being a professional rugby player is a wonderful career but, boy, it’s hard work. What I’m doing now is so much easier. I hope I don’t get cancelled one day for saying the wrong thing, but for the most part Ireland AM is just great craic.
Have you been watching the goings-on at RTÉ with some bemusement?
Look, it’s been top of our newspaper section for the past month-and-a-half. It’s never been a secret that the salaries being paid over in RTÉ were pretty extortionate, particularly coming from Virgin Media where we only get our money from advertising. That RTÉ have money from advertising and the licence fee and are still loss-making tells its own story. While it’s been the front page of every paper, it’s hidden away problems like 4,300 kids waiting to get on to the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Scheme. That’s the real tragedy. The thought of my three and six-year-old not getting the support they might need is horrific. We’re trying to build two resilient, fun loving children but you don’t know what’s round the corner.
He’s quite a bit older than you, but have you ever run into Patrick Kielty?
Yeah, but years ago. You only have to hear Patrick talk about his father and the things he experienced growing up in Northern Ireland to know what an outstanding communicator he is. He’ll also be able to bring a comedic side to the Late Late, and generally cover all bases, so I think he’ll be great at doing what is an extremely tough job.
You mentioned Leo Varadkar and his playing a blinder at Windsor Park. He was somewhat less impressive, I thought, last year when you grilled him to within an inch of his political life on the Ireland AM sofa. Had you been planning to be that robust?
The show’s not just fashion and cookery segments. Particularly in the first hour, we try to highlight how people feel about things. We’ve had so many text messages talking about children’s mental health and the CAMHS scandal at the minute. We’ve gone through COVID and through education – 30,000 students can’t find accommodation to go to university. That’s the sort of stuff we highlight between seven and eight, which is a real challenge for me. We’d had Mary Lou McDonald on the day before, and I was being criticised on social media for being too hard on her and not letting her speak. Two or three days prior to that, we’d got a lot of viewer engagement when Philly McMahon had spoken very powerfully about the homeless crisis, I was only pointing out to Leo, who maybe wasn’t quite expecting it, what Philly had said. Whether it’s Leo, Mary Lou, Matty McGrath or Stephen Donnelly, it’s my job to not just let them give a cosy answer or the message they want to get out.
Did you get more straight answers to straight questions from Mary Lou than you did Leo?
No, absolutely not. Anytime I tried to interject or get a straight answer… look, Mary Lou is an excellent politician, like Leo. But it’s easy to be in opposition. You can say what you want because it’s not up to you to make decisions.
It says a great deal about our political correspondents that some of the most robust criticism of the Irish and British governments is coming respectively from you and Gary Lineker.
And good on him. Gary Lineker is excellent on Match Of The Day, his podcasts are similarly fantastic. He’s one of the people I looked at when I was retiring from rugby and thinking, “Can I make the transition from sportsperson to the one asking the questions?” Sue Barker and Gabby Logan have also done that really successfully.
As rhinoceros-like as Mr. Lineker’s hide must be at this point, the level of the social media blowback has to effect you.
I used to love social media. The craic and the banter to be had on Twitter were excellent, but I don’t really go near it anymore because you’re not getting anything positive out of it. Gary Lineker still loves his social media and puts stuff out there sometimes just to get a reaction. He has his opinions on certain things and good on him for voicing them, a little bit like Marcus Rashford and the school dinners issue.
My next question funnily enough being: are professional sportspeople by default role models?
Of course, absolutely. As a rugby player, you’re taught that respect is a huge part of the game. Respect for the referee, respect for other players, respect for the supporters and respect for yourself. That’s been called into question by certain people’s behaviour of late. Being put on a pedestal didn’t always sit great with me. I love going out on the lash from time to time and making a fool of myself. I’m glad that social media and camera phones weren’t around when I was doing that! But a good coach will always explain to players that, whether you like it or not, you’ve got this privileged platform and should use it for good.
What are your thoughts on the Mason Greenwood affair?
I didn’t follow the legal side, but the messages at the start were atrocious, absolutely atrocious. I think Manchester United handled it very badly. Something like that needed to be quickly nipped in the bud, but the fact it went on for so long highlights that they’re lacking in leadership. I did see that they wanted to wait for their players who’d been at the Women’s World Cup to come back and give their opinions.
Did you see much of the World Cup?
Yeah, I was over in Portugal for my holidays last week and the only telly we watched other than Bluey and some other kids’ programmes was the semi-finals. I just loved it. The women’s game has come such a long way and Australia and New Zealand did a brilliant job of hosting it. Women’s sport in general is really taking off. My younger sister Hannah played hockey for Ireland, and but for injury would have gone to the Olympics. She played for Monaghan too before I did and at half-time in Croke Park, so she ticked those boxes first.
Irish women’s hockey may be in the ascendancy, but the same unfortunately can’t be said of their rugby counterparts.
Ten years ago the Irish Women’s team had just won the Grand Slam but they’re going through a tough patch at the minute. One of the biggest things is that the league they’re playing in just isn’t competitive enough and not enough young players are coming through. Some of the other countries have left Ireland behind, but there’s huge work going into changing and improving that. When you see the men’s game going so well, it’s a shame the women’s team didn’t qualify for their World Cup too.
The outstanding quality of women’s football aside, I love the fact that players are able to be honest about their sexuality, which you don’t get in the men’s game.
Not at the highest level yet, no, but there have been several players in the lower divisions who’ve been open about their sexuality. Irish rugby’s ahead of them in that Nick McCarthy who’s at Leinster and Jack Dunne, another scrum-half who’s just gone from Leinster to Exeter, have both come out. One of the greatest players of alltime, Gareth Thomas, and the greatest referee, Nigel Owens, are both openly gay so bit by bit we’re getting there.
Which brings us neatly to…
TOMMY’S WORLD CUP PREDICTIONS
Having been coached by him whilst playing for both the Lions and Ireland under Joe Schmidt, how would you describe Andy Farrell?
I have such huge respect for Andy and would love to be playing for Ireland at the moment. He’s always been a really inspirational character – to think of the career he had in both League and Union. A couple of weeks ago I bumped into Peter O’Mahony who told me how much he was loving pre-season, which I always found horrific! They were doing different types of training, which is really important. It’s very easy when you’re world number one to just stick to what you know whereas Andy is determined to break the mould and keep pushing the players.
We know how masterful he is at drills, but what’s he like as a man manager?
Andy’s very, very honest and tells you things straight. Rugby players, or any elite sportspeople, don’t like things to be sugar-coated. He’s brought a level of trust and accountability into the camp that cuts through all the noise coming from the newspapers and fans. Andy’s open and honest with the players, and they’re open and honest with each other – sometimes painfully so, but ultimately that brings everybody closer together. At the same time, he’s able to mix that with a bit of a humour. On a Monday morning when you’re dreading going into a session thinking, “What did I do wrong at the weekend?” Andy will do something like show a daft picture of you he’s got from your wife or parents. He’ll start with a funny story which means you’re disarmed and have a bit of a laugh before the seriousness sets in again. That’s especially important during a tournament when you’re not going back every night to your family.
What does he do differently to Joe Schmidt?
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge how much Andy benefitted from having Ireland’s most successful coach ever as his predecessor, and being Joe’s assistant for three years. He’s gone into a team where the groundwork and foundations have already been put into place. Joe’s tactics maybe didn’t agree with everybody, but he brought a level of professionalism into the Irish setup that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. The players have that ingrained in them. Andy knows that’s a given and has been able to add the extra bits.
If he’s got a full squad to choose from, does he absolutely know his starting XV?
Yeah, I’d say he does. I think most people could guess who they’re going to be. One of the great things about Andy, and he’s always said it, is that he doesn’t give caps for caps’ sake. He’ll generally try to pick his strongest squad all the time because he feels that representing your country is something really, really special and shouldn’t be dilluted.
One of the most important World Cup team talks he’s likely to give is before the September 30 Pool B game against South Africa who Robbie Henshaw told me – and I might be paraphrasing slightly here – are the biggest feckers he’s ever come up against. How do you beat a rampaging Springboks who’ve just hammered the All Blacks 35-7?
Well, we beat them last autumn 19-16 and the time before that by a much bigger score, 38-3. They won’t fear the Springboks, although the Springboks going into a major tournament are a different kettle of fish. Like you say, they’re big lumps, will be impeccably drilled and with Siya Kolisi recovering from injury ahead of schedule have their talisman back.
Robbie also made the point that over the past decade or two, players have become an average 10-15kgs heavier which intensifies the hits.
Back when I started it was more about attack, but nowadays defence has become the main part of rugby. There’s no space on the field to run into.
Enough of the Mary Lou-like prevarication; are Ireland going to make it three-in-a-row against Jacques Nienabar’s big lumps?
(laughs) There’s no one in the World Cup that Ireland absolutely won’t think they can beat, but the thing is the line-up of the pool. It’s very difficult that they have two of their easier games – Romania and Tonga – early on and then South Africa. The Springboks beating Scotland in their opening game could be a factor in terms of how hungry they are for the win. It doesn’t really matter whether we finish first or second in Pool B because you’re either going to have play New Zealand or France, the home side, in the quarter-final which is a pretty horrendous draw.
Hopefully it won’t, but a lot could ride on Ireland’s final pool game against Scotland who are perfectly capable of causing an upset.
I was at Murrayfield for the last Six Nations game, which we ended up winning 26-5 but up until halftime was not looking like it was going Ireland’s way. I was on the BBC that day being asked “What’s going on?” but I couldn’t decipher it. Afterwards, Andy Farrell admitted that anything which could have gone wrong did go wrong in that half, which was incredibly physical. The last thing he’ll be doing is taking Scotland for granted. We don’t have a great record at World Cups so it’ll be all hands on deck right the way the through.
It’s Hobson’s choice but who out of New Zealand or France would you prefer Ireland to get in the quarters?
France. Even though they’re the home team and we beat the All Blacks twice in New Zealand last summer, I think that Joe Schmidt is well and truly over his team and knows Ireland inside out. France won’t be easy but missing the likes of Ntamack it’s the best of two bad situations.
I don’t want any of that sugar-coating, but might England do better than the Fiji defeat would suggest?
I think they could make it to the semi-finals because they’re on the right side of the draw and have every chance of beating Argentina and Australia, but I can’t see them going beyond that.
Does Owen Farrell deserve his four game World Cup ban?
Everybody who watched that game against Wales knew it was a red card, including Owen Farrell. The fact that they brought in a lawyer to justify something on a very small technicality put rugby in a bad light. Everybody wants to see high shots eliminated from the game – Owen has a track record for going in high and is now paying the penalty for it. Rugby did itself no favours in rescinding that red card. Owen has now been caught in the backlash of rugby making a fool of itself, not unlike Ryan Tubridy has been in relation to RTÉ making a fool of itself.
Are you delighted that your old mucker Keith Earls will be making his fourth trip to a World Cup finals?
While I feel desperately sad for Jacob Stockdale who’s a fantastic player, Earlsy’s versatility – he can play centre, wing and full-back – and experience going into a major competition will be invaluable. I played with Keith, who’s an exceptional talent, for a long time. Lovely guy, very quiet. It’s only when his book came out that I became aware of his mental health issues and troubles with anxiety. That has drawn Irish people so much closer to him.
Is Dan Sheehan being taken despite his injury another good call from Andy?
With extensive rehab and what you can do when you’re together for a long time, it’s a risk you couldn’t not take.
There were a few question marks over the lineout in the England friendly. Is that a potential weakness?
No, the lineouts were excellent in the Six Nations. When you have someone like Peter O’Mahony as a third jumper or Tadgh Beirne, you’re going to be okay. You’ve also got Paul O’Connell in there masterminding things, so I’ve no concerns.
Does it suit Ireland that they’re favourites?
In my day, it wouldn’t have. We didn’t have the psychology of it but they’re a different breed now. Leinster has seen itself as the number one team in Europe for several years. That sense of being the best extends to Ireland as well.
You can answer this with both your head and heart; are Ireland going to be holding the Webb Ellis trophy aloft on Saturday October 28?
While we couldn’t be better prepped going into the World Cup, the frightening thing is that the five best teams in the world right now are all on the same side of the draw and competing for four places, and then two places. My heart says we’ll overcome that, head says the draw is just too difficult – but I look forward to being proved wrong!
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