Ireland's top young rugby players offered chance to push beyond provincial glory
69 Ireland Tests, 5 for the British & Irish Lions, league titles with Ulster and Ospreys, a Grand Slam and a slew of memorable tries.
All of that achieved in a fantastic career yet Tommy Bowe cherishes an early step in the road as his proudest moment in rugby.
In November 2004, Bowe made his Ireland debut at Lansdowne Road against the USA. Bigger and better challenges would await but on that day, climbing the concrete steps up the narrow tunnel onto the pitch, and with his family up in the stands, is the day that means the most to him.
Players are often asked for their best memories of their time playing the game, and the answers vary. However, the look in the eyes of most players when they are asked about playing schools rugby - or back with their club as a youngster - is something else altogether.
You can line out in the most impressive stadiums in the world and battle for the famous trophies but those memories of playing alongside your best mates, when life seemed much simpler, stay with you for life.
Tommy Bowe and Louis Ludik, fullback at Ulster and a former teammate of the Ireland legend, both experienced schools rugby and regard it fondly. Bowe played Senior Cup at Royal School, Armagh while Ludik lined out for EG Jansen Hoërskool in South Africa.
Ahead of the staging of the inaugural Rugby Rising festival in Dublin next week, Bowe spoke with Barry Murphy - on Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby - all about it. He began:
"Louis came to me, speaking to me about the Craven Week in South Africa that they played in, which is a massive schoolboy rugby festival in South Africa. Players come to it from all over the country to play in it. Really, really exciting festival.
"And he spoke about how Leinster Schools is, Munster Schools, Ulster Schools and Connacht Schools, and 'Why do they not play against each other?' So we decided we’d set up a week-long festival over the Halloween half-term break, next week, where they’ll play Monday, Wednesday and Friday in Energia Park, Donnybrook.
"It’s an opportunity for school-kids from, say, Limerick to play against school-kids from Ulster that they would have never played against. They’re going to be staying in King’s Hospital school, hanging out with each other."
"We have loads of fun activities in the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday," Bowe added. "Stuff on for them on the Thursday – hopefully, get a few players in to do Q&A… So it’s going to be a really good week for them. And hopefully we can recreate a bit of a festival atmosphere at the matches in Energia Park."
The tournament part of the festival will see schools from across the country put their First 15s (Under-18s) up against each other. Six schools are taking part this year but the aim is for that to grow and grow with each passing year.
"Whenever I was in school, we had some great memories, you know, playing different levels of rugby but schoolboy rugby is still so special. You’re playing with your best mates – some of those memories, like, we got knocked out in the quarter-final two years in a row and I was devastated over it.
"And it was always a sense of, that's it, you're done. So, we kind of thought, ‘Surely, the Schools Cup is the holy grail to school kids. We’re never going to try and replace that, but we thought we could try and add something else to the schools calendar that they could look forward to'."
Bowe and Ludik can see schools rugby is now leaning towards just busing players in and back out on the same day for matches without ever giving them a chance to get a taste for the place they are visiting or the people they are playing.
"[The teams] are going to be staying in like dorms together, they are going to be hanging out with different people they have never met before.
"And, hopefully, when they are going to college in years to come or they are going to Ireland matches in years to come, they’ll be able to go, ‘Yeah, remember we did that week, and what a great time?’"
Making memories for a whole new generation of rugby hopefuls and, above all else, fans of the game.
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