Returning to fitness, with what feels like a “brand new knee”, should be enough to put a smile on Tommy Bowe’s face.
And when he looks at what potentially lies ahead over the coming 10 months, it becomes hard to stop smiling.
Having played just once since suffering posterior cruciate ligament injuries during Ireland’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina last November, he now hopes to have a full run at a season topped and tailed with potential.
First up is the chance to become part of what he calls Ulster’s strongest ever backline.
Next, oh, just two Tests against New Zealand, with one of them in the United States.
The Six Nations is just over the horizon, and off in the All Black distance — a Lions tour.
It would be a third tour of Bowe’s career, and while it’s a million miles away right now, he’s already got two months’ running behind him.
“The Lions year makes it exciting,” said the 32-year-old.
“The last two tours were, for me, probably the most stand-out moments any player can have in his career.
“I have missed three of the last four Six Nations through injury which is really tough to take and disappointing.
“[But] I feel now I took a step back to be ready for this year. I missed the end of what could have been a really exciting finish for us knowing that I needed to get myself in the right shape for this season.
“At the moment I feel great, the work we have done is excellent.”
Bowe says he is right up there with his fellow Ireland players around the provinces in terms of workload, and believes he could be as little as a ‘a couple of weeks’ away from action.
It’s been a long road, but he’s more optimistic than ever after taking time off when he so desperately needed it.
“I hate saying that I came back too early, but looking back I probably did,” he said of the Zebre game he played in April.
“My leg felt good at the time… I ended up playing the full game and in the last five minutes I felt something in my knee. It just didn’t feel right. So I took the decision to step back, go get it looked at, readdress it.
“I had a good break over the summer, got a bit of sunshine and rested up before coming back into the season as if it were going back to basics.”
Some bone bruising was what ultimately hampered his return to fitness, an injury Bowe first believed to be innocuous, but which proved more of a challenge than expected. “It is very hard to get rid of as it is hard to do much work on it,” he explained.
“I built up my quads and my calves to new levels whereby I could take the pressure off my knee. And at this stage, it feels like it is a new knee again, it feels back to normal. I can take part in all sorts of training. I am putting the final nuts and bolts on and ready to rock.”
Bowe has overcome one challenge in getting back into the shape he’s in, but now he faces another — getting into the Ulster side.
“Right now it is all about getting into this Ulster back-line, which given that it has been strengthened yet again will be difficult enough,” he said.
“We are in a very blessed position at the moment. The [Irish] guys who went to South Africa got great experience and they are buzzing now they are back in the squad.
“And with Charles [Pitau], Jared [Payne] in the back-line creating space, these are the guys I want creating space for me. This is the strongest back line I can remember with Ulster.
“It’s difficult for Les to pick the team but at least I hope he can pick me.”
Forcing his way into that star-studded setup would bolster his case for doing so in green.
Bowe would love another shot at the All Blacks and admits he’s still hurting over Ireland’s World Cup departure.
“Who wouldn’t want to be part of a trip like that squad going over to Chicago?” Bowe admitted.
“It’s going to be a fixture everyone will be gunning for — a a chance in a lifetime.
“But even just to get back — my last proper game, I feel, was that [RWC] quarter-final... and I still feel it’s killing me inside.
“So the green jersey, of course, is what I hope to get myself back in to.
“For now, I’ve worked so hard over the last couple of months to get myself back to the level where I feel I can be at the top of my game. I finally feel very, very close.”
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