He's exciting, he's fresh and he's eager to please
It's a sweet feeling as Craig Gilroy is congratulated by Jonny Sexton after scoring the first of Ireland's seven tries against Argentina on his Test debut. photograph: inpho
INTERVIEW WITH CRAIG GILROY:The Ulster winger has long been seen as the potential next big thing for Ireland
Craig Gilroy’s Twitter account describes him as a rugby player, a part-time student (in business and marketing) and an ambassador for the Assisi Animal Sanctuary. It’s a shelter based in Conlig, just outside Gilroy’s home seaside town of Bangor in Co Down.
Last weekend he visited the sanctuary with his dog and was given a few seeking homes which he could take for walks and hawk to prospective owners. Walking dogs is relaxing for him, and if he can help Assisi raise money, all the better.
On his 21st birthday last year some friends turned up at Gilroy’s house with a tank of water and a shoe box containing “a bearded dragon”, or lizard.
He’s always liked animals. Growing up he had a hamster, one of his three sisters had two rabbits and latterly, much to their dad’s dismay, they acquired a wee golden labrador, called Miley, from Assisi.
In truth, his parents, Noel and Lorna, never discouraged Gilroy and his four siblings – older sister Zara, brother Stuart and younger sisters Caitlin and Keeva – from doing anything, and, not unlike his broad taste in animals, in Gilroy’s case that extended to sport. His dad played some squash, tennis and athletics, but there was no rugby in the family tree at all, though in his formative years football, especially, and Gaelic football held sway.
“Growing up I just wanted to do anything. I just loved sports. Obviously there’s that divide in Ulster, Catholic and Protestant, but I just didn’t care. I just wanted to play it (Gaelic). I thought I was quite good at it.”
He played mostly in midfield for St Paul’s in Holywood, while also playing football for Holywood Boys and Bangor Swifts. He had, he admits, ambitions for football. “I thought of packing in the rugby and concentrating on football. But then I just loved rugby too much, I couldn’t let it go, and from 16 I stuck with the rugby.”
He can still remember his first rugby training session as an 11-year-old in Methody. “Forwards here, backs there, and I didn’t have a clue which was which and I went with the forwards. And up until 16 I was a forward.”
He played flanker and number eight. “Pick up the ball at the back of the scrum and just run, start stepping and never pass,” he says, laughing.
His rugby ambitions with Methody hit a glitch when he was a grade off achieving his GCSEs. He went to BRA (Belfast Royal Academy) for five months, during which time he was moved to the wing. He was just becoming acclimatised to BRA when he resat one of his GCSEs, passed it, and was readmitted to Method, though only started regularly in his final season when Paddy Jackson again steered them to the trophy.
“He was the star. He was the starting outhalf in fifth year and ran the show even then.”
Although Gilroy scored a few tries, he didn’t have a sniff of Ulster or Irish Schools. Despite having his first taste of representative rugby in that summer of 2009 with the Ulster under-19s, after finishing school, he had intended travelling to the USA for a “gap” year. But as fate would have it he some mates from Methody had ended their rugby season playing a few games for the Bangor under-20s, which led to him playing the firsts’ last five Ulster league games.
“It’s strange when people talk about the step up to adult rugby, I just really enjoyed playing at that level. We won the league; that night everybody celebrated and it wasn’t a pretty day in school the next day.”
The Bangor coach, Justin Fitzpatrick, was heading to Dungannon and persuaded Gilroy to join him. “If there was anyone who was going to persuade me to stay it would have been him, because not only had I developed a good relationship with him, he has a way with words. Flip me, it was like 300 miles a week I was driving.”
His father gave him a car for the thrice-weekly trip and he figured he may as well give it everything. Dungannon, a friendly club, suited him, even if he did at first wonder “what on earth am I doing here?” Ulster Academy player Chris Cochrane was on one wing and club captain Neil Paterson on the other.
Recounting his prodigious rise through the ranks since, such-and-such a game “went well for me” becomes a recurring theme. His debut for the Dungannon seconds featured a hat-trick, and with Paterson injured, an AIL debut at Stevenson Park against Young Munster for the firsts followed a week later.
A frequent visitor was David Humphreys, on foot of which he played a few Ulster A games. One of them was against the Irish under-20s in Belfield.
“I had a really good game,” he recounts, almost predictably at this stage, scoring a length-of-the-pitch intercept try. “It was just a dream day. I was just so happy with myself.”
Contemporaries such as Tiernan O’Halloran, Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway would keep him out of the actual Irish under-20s team, but it was a breakthrough game for Gilroy. The ensuing call from Gary Longwell, inviting him into the Ulster Academy/High Performance Unit in the summer of 2010, was the fulfilment of a dream.
The pre-season training made him physically sick for the first time, but he loved his new life. That same summer, he scored the first try in the Combined Provinces Aviva Stadium opening game, off a cross-field kick from Jackson, with Luke Marshall in the team too.
His first Ulster pre-season game was at the Stoop against Harlequins and opposite Ugo Monye, fresh from his Lions tour. “That was another surreal experience. Things just kept getting bigger and better.”
A broken jaw at home to Leeds the following week left him eating soup and “in a world of pain”, but after a few try-scoring return games for Dungannon he made his competitive Ulster debut the following November, away to Cardiff in the Magners League. “I just love that pressure. It’s weird. I was talking to Enda (McNulty) the other night, my first cap for Ulster, my first cap for Ireland; I wish I could have that feeling before every game. That Ulster game I was just buzzing.”
Yep, it went well too. Man of the Match and just the two tries; another intercept, and a solo effort from 60 metres out. For Humphreys and Brian McLaughlin, the winger’s debut was further vindication of their belief in the player. “He’s got that X factor you’re always looking for in a young player,” says Humphreys.
Gilroy scored five tries in his first three games, and eight all told in that rookie season, resulting in a first professional contract, which has since been extended to 2016. Amazingly, he now has 60 competitive caps for Ulster, not to mention his burgeoning Irish career.
He continues to pick his days well too. A standout was that solo try in Ulster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final win at Thomond Park. “My favourite try of all-time.”
Well, he corrects himself, until his Irish debut against Argentina last November, a week after his hat-trick against Fiji. All his family bar his brother Stuart were in the Aviva that day. Gilroy had rarely been so nervous, but helpfully he roomed with Tommy Bowe, who presented him with his jersey on the day. “The drive from the Shelbourne to Lansdowne Road was amazing.”
An early touch eased him into the game, and then came the try. Ireland won well, he received his first cap at a “lovely” post-match dinner, saw his family and had a great night in Dublin. You couldn’t script it.
“Now that I’ve had a taste of a game like Ireland-England, when you lose, you learn to appreciate when you’re playing well, and give yourself a pat on the back. I always seem to want more, but sometimes you should reflect and enjoy.”
And want more days like that. Encouragingly, he says there’s the same feeling in training as there was before the Argentina game, with a couple more new faces that he knows so well. “It’s exciting, it’s fresh, it’s eager in there.”
He could, of course, also be talking about himself.