'I didn't really expect it but I'm glad it's come'
He scored two tries on his debut for Ulster two years ago as a 19-year-old. Now 21, Craig Gilroy has been top try scorer in each of the past two seasons. His touch down against Munster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final last season was named try of the season at this year’s Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association awards.
Two more for Ireland against the Barbarians in May not so much highlighted his scoring prowess but settled agreement on it. Three in last Saturday’s non-cap international against Fiji and it was as though Gilroy had lassoed Declan Kidney. The Ireland coach had to pick him.
Gilroy couldn’t break the wing monopolies of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble in Ulster but yesterday Ireland called him up and not for the first time the national shirt has respected certain specialist qualities more than the province. In the media game hype is good currency but Gilroy’s elevation to meet Argentina tomorrow comes as no surprise.
There is a boyish quality about Gilroy as he stifles a smile in his initiation ceremony, a sort of meet and greet the media with Kidney and captain Jamie Heaslip. There is also a mannerly order about him, the Methody education and a lifestyle of aerobic capacity and non-saturated fats shinning through. Still, his career path, steep as it is, didn’t account for being left wing in one of Ireland’s most important world-ranking matches in years.
“Each season you have a certain amount of goals and one of mine was to get a cap for Ireland and with the news of Tommy coming back (to Ulster) that was going to make that a lot harder,” he says. “So to be honest, no I didn’t (think I’d be here) but it was almost nothing to lose with those two (Bowe and Trimble) there, almost like a weight off my shoulders.”
“Yeah, it’s been hard. Obviously Andrew and Tommy are there so I’ve been having to work extra hard to get my place. I’ve two international wingers there, who I get on really well with and who are happy to help me out and I’ve learned a lot from them, so I’ll take the positives from that.
“I didn’t really expect it (Ireland selection) but I’m glad it’s come.”
There are many things that companion a first cap and one of those is the expectation that Argentina will see weakness where there is inexperience.
Exploitation is part and parcel of competition and as Kidney acknowledges, Argentina will download the latest analysis on Gilroy and pore over it.
Behind stepping off either foot or the natural instincts that gift Gilroy with bristling confidence ball in hand is a mountain of statistics that can reduce the most mercurial of wingers to numbers.
“Yeah, I’m sure they will (target me),” he says. “Obviously it’s my first cap, one of the younger guys, and they’ll maybe see that as a chance to target me and maybe put a couple of guys in my channel or put a few high balls up. I expect that and I will be ready for it.”
Former GAA player
Defence, positioning and ability under the high ball are all works in progress. A former GAA player in his youth in Holywood, Gilroy can rightfully argue his extra hours practising those things in Ravenhill and Stockman’s Lane have paid off. A few kicks after training, extra work on the tackle bag, the stock-in-trade of ambition.
“I think with the analysis now and software packages sure Argentina will just download a few things to see what Craig has done,” explains Kidney. “Space is optimum. When the level goes up space is more at a premium but he has managed himself so well and that has impressed me.”
Debuts are there to be savoured but often wasted on first-timers, especially in the crucible of Test rugby. The match day squad has four players with just one cap, Iain Henderson, Richardt Strauss, David Kilcoyne and Michael Bent. Gilroy is in good company.
“The fact it wasn’t a capped match (Fiji) doesn’t really make much of a difference to me,” he says. “I actually played against the Barbarians and that wasn’t a capped game and I felt that was my senior Irish debut. Playing there with the players and putting on the green jersey felt like my senior Irish debut. No matter what, capped or not I still love putting it on.”