Model pro does it the hard way

'NEARLY embarrassing" is not exactly the kind of phrase usually associated with Munster's 2006 Heineken Cup win but it's not difficult to see what Ian Dowling is getting at when he talks of that final victory over Biarritz. The likes of Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy and assorted others had poured blood, sweat and salty tears into European competition for a good decade, yet here was this young fella from Kilkenny, barely 12 months a professional rugby player and a winners' medal around his neck. But you couldn't begrudge him. Not for one second.

Dowling's journey from Kilkenny RFC to the Munster first team, via Shannon of course, is a tale of hard work, steely determination and, obviously enough for anybody who's seen his excellence on the Munster left wing this season, talent. He may have been raw when he burst onto the professional scene away to Castres back in January 2006 but his true abilities have gradually unravelled these past 12 months.

There are other wingers out there who are faster, some who look a bit more natural in full flow, but few possess the ability to beat a tackler, and often two or three more after that, like Dowling. He's got a deceptive strength about him, a low sense of gravity, an eye for a gap and importantly, a footballing brain, one that sets him off in the right direction and opens up space for others around him. He can sniff out a try, too, just like all good wingers.

Still, you can't help the feeling that where he sits now, in his second Heineken Cup final in three years, all comes back to his own bloodyminded determination to make a success of himself. Towards the end of the 2004/05 season, Declan Kidney put in a call to advise Dowling that there was the possibility of a contract for him the following season, but only a possibility. He'd caught the eye while playing with Shannon in the AIB League, and as the dream of being a full-time professional hung tantalisingly in the air, he know that it was now or never.

"I always thought I would make it at the back of my head and it wasn't until I was handing in my final year project that I thought about it the whole thing properly, " Dowling admits. "I didn't really know where I was going. My future was a bit unclear and then I got that call from Deccie and it was still up in the air. I was still planning to go up and study physiotherapy in Trinity but that period was the one time I worried that the rugby thing wasn't going to become a reality."

As we now know, the call on the contract went his way and he threw himself into this professionalism lark. It had helped that while playing with Shannon and studying Sports Science at UL, he shared a house with Trevor Hogan and Jerry Flannery, so the whole experience wasn't new to him. "I couldn't comprehend what they were doing at all, " he laughs at his early days in the house. "I'd come back from a day at college and they'd be in bed resting up. But it was the simple things that I took on board, their diets and whatever. I suppose they introduced me to professional rugby and they opened my eyes to certain things."

From the day he started full-time with Munster, Dowling's rise has been pretty incredible. He played against Castres that January night in 2006, lined out in the games against Sale, Perpignan and Leinster on the way to the final and played a full part in the final victory against Biarritz. "Being in the professional environment, I was getting everything I wanted for so long. I was never going to throw it all away by not trying. I loved it and I put my head down and kept plugging away. To be given my chance in Castres was unbelievable, as was the rest of the year. Winning the Heineken Cup was just the most incredible experience.

Everything I'd ever wanted had just been turned into reality."

And then, well, nothing. When Dowling looked back at the 2006/07 season, his second season as a professional, Munster's first as European champions, he realised that he hadn't played one game that he would categorise as special that year. As a result, he didn't even receive a call-up to the Churchill Cup squad in a year when Ireland's "untouchables" were being rested before the World Cup and 'A' team competing in England was effectively the country's third choice XV.

Yet he had the maturity to take a step back from it all and realise he needed a complete break from the game. The previous year, after the Heineken Cup victory, he spent his holiday time around and about Kilkenny, talking rugby to everybody who brought the subject up.

However 12 months on, Dowling was joining up with a gang of mates from Kilkenny who were working their way around Australia. "I decided to completely switch off. I met them in Cairns, went down the East Coast, I did the Whit Sundays, all the usual stuff. We passed through all the usual backpacker stops and had a few drinks every night. Everybody was completely relaxed and in the same frame of mind, it was such a brilliant environment to relax in. I arrived back the Saturday before the Monday we started training totally refreshed."

And he's stayed refreshed. In the preseason he worked on his diet with Andrea Cullen, Munster's dietician, while Tom Cummins and Aidan O'Connell, of the province's fitness staff, worked on his speed and power. On the pitch, he was bouncing more tacklers, running more yards, causing more mayhem for the opposition yet when Doug Howlett arrived in January, it was he and not Brian Carney who made way for Munster's final two Heineken Cup pool games.

"Obviously I was gutted but you have to respect Deccie's decision and work on certain aspects of your game. You can either bitch and moan about it or take it on the chin and train harder and better and that's what I think I did. I just made sure that the next time I played in a Munster jersey, I was a better player than the last time I wore the shirt. While it hurt initially, it helped in the long run. One of my mates from home sent me on a text message talking about obstacles, set-backs and stuff like that and it said 'the block of granite, which is an obstacle in the pathway of the weak, becomes a stepping-stone in the pathway of the strong'. It's kind of been the motto for the season. That made so much sense to me and it refocuses your mind again to move on and make yourself better."