He's exciting, he's fresh and he's eager to please
“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.”