THE form of Matt Bowen in the second half of this First Utility Super League campaign has almost led Wigan Warriors fans to query: “Sam who…?”
Bowen, the former Queensland State of Origin full-back, has not always had the smoothest of rides since joining the club from his beloved North Queensland Cowboys at the start of last season.
Indeed, when it was announced as far back as April that Wigan’s own darling Sam Tomkins had re-signed for them from New Zealand Warriors for 2016, it was inevitable the Australian’s stay would not last any longer than the initial two seasons.
Yet the stocky No 1, once labelled a “little freak” by Kangaroos captain Darren Lockyer for his match-winning talent, has revelled ever since, leaving many wondering why, still aged only 33, he is calling time on his superb career after tonight’s Grand Final with Leeds Rhinos.
However, this week, a defiant Bowen maintained: “This is it. I made my mind up throughout the year that I’d had enough.
“I want to go out on a high and enjoy training and playing again, and I think that’s shown in the last couple of years.
“I think everyone finishing up thinks they could play on again, but it’s the little things through the week like getting up for games which is draining.
“I could play on for another two or three years but it’s those little things that catch up with you,” he said.
“I’m not thinking beyond this Saturday though.”
He would love to replicate what his former team-mate Johnathan Thurston did last Sunday, the absurdly gifted Australia half-back who produced the match- winning drop goal in golden point extra-time against Brisbane Broncos to deliver the Cowboys’ maiden NRL Grand Final success.
For Bowen, it was a beautiful moment; he has played more games for North Queensland than anyone else, appearing 270 times and scoring 130 tries between 2001 and 2013, playing in their only previous Grand Final, the 2005 loss to Wests Tigers.
“I didn’t watch it, but I was catching up on all the updates on Twitter,” he said,
“It was an incredible result. I’ve seen the highlights since and I was chuffed for everyone involved.
“It’s not just the squad, it’s the people behind the scenes, the fans and the whole place.
“I bet Townsville was a busy and hectic place the night after.
“It would be a perfect final week of my career if the Cowboys won the NRL Grand Final and then we won the Super League Grand Final, too.
“Leeds are going to come here and go at us, but it’d be great to have Wigan and the Cowboys play in the World Club Challenge; I’d have to come back over for that one. I’d have to support Wigan too, wouldn’t I!
“I’ve enjoyed my time here and hopefully I can finish on a high.”
Bowen, the NRL’s top try-scorer in 2005 and again two years later, is certainly still capable of pyrotechnics, as illustrated by some of his classy involvements against Huddersfield Giants in last week’s one-sided semi-final.
He has scored nine tries in 21 games this term, created another 10, and his battle with Leeds No 1 Zak Hardaker, the newly-crowned Steve Prescott Man of Steel, should be fascinating.
But how much does he simply want to win, especially having lost 12 months ago in the final against St Helens?
“You look back on the games and the Grand Finals you play and wish you could do things differently,” he said, aiming for third time lucky.
“And I have a chance to do that on Saturday. I can’t wait to get out there, enjoy the company of the boys for the last time and enjoy the game.
“I haven’t tried to think about lifting the trophy because the last few times I’ve done that I’ve come out on the wrong side of it.
“I just want to think about the moment itself, doing my job and doing it as best as I possibly can for this team.
“These two years have been great and everything I expected.
“The fans welcomed me with open arms and I’ll miss them chanting my name and cheering me on, but I’ve made some friends for life here at Wigan.”