THERE WERE HEINEKEN CUP tries against Aironi and Leicester Tigers last season but it would be fair to say that Craig Gilroy announced himself to Europe with the scintillating solo try he scored against Munster in the cup quarter-final on 8 April 2012.
The Belfast winger scored six tries in 29 appearances for Brian McLaughlin’s men, as they reached the final, but still missed out on a summer tour to New Zealand. A hat-trick against Fiji in a non-cap international forced the international issue and Gilroy was scoring on his Ireland debut a week later.
This season, with Ulster falling at the quarter-final stage in Europe but pressing for league honours, the 22-year-old’s contribution has been more of the stop-start variety. Andrew Trimble, the man he replaced in the Ireland set-up, has enjoyed his best ever season for Ulster while Tommy Bowe has commanded a starting role when fit.
While Gilroy could expect to start for Ireland in the internationals against Australia and New Zealand this Autumn, he declares his comfort with the squad player role under Mark Anscombe at Ulster. Gilroy told TheScore.ie:
It’s been a good, but also a strange, season. I’ve had a lot of up and, certainly, a lot of downs to go with it. I’ve absolutely enjoyed my first year with Ireland and loved getting my first cap and my first try – that was great. It is great to play along with two guys, Tommy and Andrew, that I get along with really well.”
“Andrew has had a fantastic season,” he added. “I think 10 tries was his best beforehand and has 12 now before the season is over. He has done really well for someone who has been left out, almost, of the Irish set-up. To come back and do that was amazing and it is something a few of the younger lads can learn from.”
While Gilroy misses tonight’s Pro12 semi-final with Scarlets through injury, the ‘younger guys’ included Stuart Olding, who starts at inside centre, and backline replacements Michael Allen and Peter Nelson. The Scarlets back five features two Lions, George North and Jonathan Davies, while Welsh outhalf Rhys Priestland is back from a long-term injury.
“Scarlets are one of the best teams in the competition and, like ourselves, they’ll be up for it,” said Gilroy. “George North is an outstanding player and has been ever since he announced himself on the world stage against South Africa. They’ve a great backline, a really big pack and some good depth in the squad.”
‘FFFffitzpatrick!’ (©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)
Despite the attacking brand of rugby and laundry list of victories, Ulster’s sole Lions representative is Tommy Bowe. In mid-April when Anscombe said he expected ‘a few’ Ulstermen to travel Down Under and take on Australia, he has Bowe and Rory Best in mind, with Gilroy and Iain Henderson his other hopefuls.
Gilroy was delighted to hear of Bowe’s call-up and jokes about his gruesome experience of throwing animal hearts to hungry lions for a photo opp. at Belfast Zoo. To be honest, the winger concedes, he did not think his name would be in the selection frame despite a return of two tries in five Test matches this season.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to be in the frame. The wingers that are going are more than capable and deserve to go. As for close calls, there is certainly the likes of Tim Visser, who I rate very highly, and Simon [Zebo] himself.”
He admits that both Visser and Zebo may be ahead of him on the stand-by list before expressing his excitement at the changes about to take hold in Irish rugby, first under Les Kiss then new head coach, Joe Schmidt. “I’m excited to see what he brings to the mix and I’ve heard good things about him from the Leinster boys,” said Gilroy before adding, “I just hope he picks me.”
*TheScore.ie will be liveblogging all the Ulster v Scarlets action from 7pm this evening.