We're far too eager to send our rugby stars into early retirement 5 years ago

We're far too eager to send our rugby stars into early retirement

"I was on the good side of it 10 years back so I suppose I'm on the other side of it now too."

Between them, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe have 145 Ireland caps, 44 international tries and eight Lions Test appearances. Apart from their Triple Crown successes with Ireland, and provincial titles, they won the 2009 Grand Slam and two further Six Nations for their country.

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The next World Cup is two years off but we are already looking beyond them. Easing them into retirement.

That's all well and good if they want to step away but neither man does and both are affronted at those that are eager to shuffle them off the stage. Kearney, at 31, has the best case for grievance. Bowe is two years older but he is looking back to his best for an Ulster side who are four from four in the Guinness PRO14.

SportsJOE spoke with both men about life on the other side of 30, mounting and surmounting injuries, and taking on the next generation.

Bowe has featured in all four Ulster victories this season and had shown the type of versatility Joe Schmidt loves by taking on the challenge of playing outside centre in a couple of league games. His last outing for Ireland was March 2017 and was memorable for utterly crap reasons. He says:

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"It was an odd one as, obviously, I'd only been on the pitch maybe 30 or 40 seconds. In that time, you just want to get on and get your hands on the ball. I think I came on at 78 minutes and was being stretchered off at 79 minutes. To be honest, it was almost a feeling of embarrassment. I just couldn't believe it - that I was on this pitch for the second time in just over a year, being stretchered off.

"I could hear the bone - my fibula - break and I knew something wasn't right. It wasn't that sore, but to have just got on the pitch only to be carted off again... people were commenting on how I was smiling but it was just this disbelief. You don't know whether to laugh or cry."

tommy bowe

Bowe admits he was feeling 'a bit down in the dumps' as he faced into another lengthy comeback but the arrival of his first child, Emma, and getting involved in TV presenting for an upcoming RTE and BBC travel show were two reminders that life outside of rugby whirrs on.

The leg break was, to Bowe's mind, his sixth serious injury in five seasons but he quickly zeroed in on getting back to his best.

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"The idea never came into my head that this could be the end of it for me. I knew it was a broken bone and that I'd come back from a lot worse.

"Knowing that, it gave me a good opportunity to go back and work on the rehab and the pre-hab I had for other injuries on my body, so when it came to preseason I'd be fully fit and ready to go."

As part of Ulster's pre-season training, Bowe took on some of his Ulster teammates in speed tests and found he could still mix it at the top. In running 9.7 metres per second [recorded over a 40-metre dash], Bowe recorded his fastest time for four years. It was not quite Jacob Stockdale - the Ulster winger recorded 9.97 metres per second - but it was enough to convince Bowe he could take on all comers.

Rob Kearney was another who was recording his best speed times in years while training with Leinster, and he was more than happy to share that information.

Ronan O'Gara once said Kearney considers the Ireland No.15 jersey his to lose. The fullback nods in agreement when we recall that comment to him. That mindset would have made Ireland's packed, two-day camp at Carton House [in August] very competitive.

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"It was certainly different, you know?" he begins. "Lots of new faces; lots of younger guys.

"It was a big squad - lots of players there. It's a sign of the times, I suppose, with the residency rule and more illustration of the amount of good quality that's coming through, from some young guys right across the provinces."

O'Halloran, Stockdale and Conway

It must make it all the more frustrating that, after a run of three Leinster games [one in preseason], hamstring issues have flared up again to sideline him. Kearney has come back from injuries well before - emphatically so against the All Blacks last November - so he is focusing on the positives.

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"My perception that I can still do it is very strong in my own head," he says.

"Maybe amongst some elements of the media and some supporters, they may question it. But in my own head, I knew I was more than capable of doing it. It was just nice to be able to showcase it on the big stage."

"[Getting written off] is frustrating but it's the culture that we're in," Kearney adds. "If you've got a player that's been around a long time, I think people can sometimes... not get little sick of it but they want to see the new faces and a bit of youth coming through.

"When you hit the other side of 30, you're probably seen as a player on his way out, as opposed to coming up through the ranks. You get away with it in your early 20s as people are calling on you to get in. I was on the good side of it 10 years back so I suppose I'm on the other side of it now too."

For a fullback renowned for his aerial abilities, Kearney has had his feet on the ground and at least recognises the very swings and roundabouts that helped get him his break have are now at play for the likes of Jacob Stockdale, Rory O'Loughlin and more.

But that No.15 jersey is still his, he'll tell himself, until the day it well and truly isn't.

With any luck, both men will go out on their own terms and as close to the top as possible. After all they have given, since 2004 and 2005, it's the least they deserve.