TOMMY BOWE’S BEST memory of playing rugby with Royal School Armagh is beating Chris Henry’s Wallace High side when he was in lower sixth, the equivalent of fifth year.

The year after, that was flipped on its head and Bowe experienced the low point.

“We had a good team with [current Exeter out-half] Gareth Steenson and a couple of others, but Chris’ team got their own back,” recalls Bowe with a rueful laugh.

“I gather that I butchered a try, which is a heartbreaker. There’s no video evidence, thankfully!”

Bowe retired from playing at the end of last season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Having lived the joys and disappointments of the schools game himself, Bowe is now hoping to add something new to the annual rugby calendar with the launch of his new ‘Rugby Rising’ festival, which kicks-off at Donnybrook on Monday.

Bowe has linked up with his former Ulster team-mate Louis Ludik in this business venture, with the South African fullback having leaned on a prestigious schoolboy competition back at home in coming up with the concept.

“Louis brought the idea to me two years ago, talking about how he had been involved in the Craven Week, which is a massive schools festival in South Africa that all the top rugby players have come through at different stages,” says Bowe.

“To play in the Craven Week was such a massive thing for them, then we were talking about how big Ulster Schools was and I was trying to explain to him how much bigger even Leinster Schools is, the interest in Munster and Connacht.

“We discussed how crazy it was that there was nothing to bring them all together and that’s where the idea came from.”

And so the wheels began to turn on Rugby Rising, which takes place for the first time next week, with game days on Monday, Wednesday and Friday involving Wesley College, Sullivan Upper School, St. Mary’s College, CBC Monkstown, The King’s Hospital, Newbridge College and Bowe’s own Royal School Armagh.

Games are set to be played in a 60-minute format, with squads of 25 and rolling subs allowed. 

Ex-Ireland and Ulster wing Bowe says himself and Ludik “met all sorts of reasons why they should and shouldn’t do” the festival as they spoke to various schools committees, teachers and rugby coaches.

Ulster’s Louis Ludik is Bowe’s partner in Rugby Rising. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Many of the nation’s most renowned rugby schools are not involved in the inaugural Rugby Rising, with some of them having played in a tournament at Methodist College last weekend to mark the Belfast school’s 150th-anniversary celebrations.

The fact that Ireland underage camps take place this week – the mid-term break from school – also complicated matters.

Bowe hopes to have the top names of schools rugby involved in the future but says the festival is not only about the big guns. 

“A lot of the schools we spoke to about coming were very keen but obviously wanted to see it happen first of all. I would imagine that next year there will be huge interest and then it’s going to be difficult to pick teams.

“The likes of Inst [Royal Belfast Academical Institution], Methody in Belfast, St. Michael’s and Blackrock expect to get to the Schools Cup final every year but there are so many schools that train all year and only get to the second round and get knocked out and their year is over.

“They don’t get the same experience and with this festival we’re trying to offer an experience to some of the lesser-known schools, to an extent.”

Each school has paid fees per player to be involved and for the non-local schools that covers things like accommodation at King’s Hospital for the week and all meals.

Meanwhile, the non-rugby days on Tuesday and Thursday will be dedicated ‘development days,’ the first of them taking place at the Aviva Stadium.

Donnybrook is the venue for the three match days. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“We’re bringing in S&C coaches, a nutritionist, Adrian Logan to speak about working in sports on TV, a production company on their jobs filming sport, Ryan Constable on agency and some of his big deals, then also STATSports,” says Bowe.

“They’re going to put GPS units on all the players for the games and then do a presentation to show them their top speeds against Jacob Stockdale in Six Nations, stuff like that.

“The dream is always to play professional rugby for your province but we want to show the kids that they can be as much a part of the game even if it’s not on the pitch.”

While the Schools Cup competitions are certain to remain the key focuses for every rugby-playing school in the country, Bowe is hopeful that Rugby Rising can start strongly next week and build in the coming years.

“The Schools Cup is the holy grail for these kids and nothing is going to replace that,” he says. “It’s something they build their whole season looking forward to and we don’t want this to be as competitive. We just want to bring back some of those values of these kids playing against each other and spending time with each other.

“We’d love to see this becoming part of the schools calendar for years to come and that it goes from strength to strength.”

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