Confident Gilroy grabs his opportunity with both hands but the real work for him is only beginning
From the blindside:The Ulster winger has made a tremendous initial impact but now he has to build on that early momentum
All of a sudden, Craig Gilroy is the name on everybody’s lips. The one thing that really struck me about him last Saturday was the amount of confidence he seemed to be playing with. He didn’t look to be at all nervous about the whole experience, although when your first touch of the ball is a try I suppose you have every reason to look confident for the rest of the day.
But even so, it was noticeable how every time he got on the ball, he tried to do something positive and direct with it. You don’t do that when you’re a bag of nerves and you surely don’t do it when you’re only just in the team and a bag of nerves. But Gilroy’s confidence was up. You could see it in him – his chest was out, he was looking for the ball, he wanted to be the one to do the damage.
The good form for Ulster, the three tries against Fiji, the positive write-ups in the press, they all fed into it in the build-up to the game. And then, the biggest factor of all, he got the vote of confidence from his coach.
Each little building block went on top of the other until Declan Kidney was left with a young player bursting out of his socks and mad to get on the ball and take the game to Argentina.
That confidence is the key. Confident players try things. They play with belief, knowing that even if something doesn’t come off, that’s no reason not to go again. Anyone who’d seen him play for Ulster over the past few seasons knew he had a bit about him but it’s a big step up to a Test against Argentina that everyone thought was going to be a dogfight.
In the end, it wasn’t as tough a game as we had all imagined but that was in big part down to him scoring an early try and being involved in Johnny Sexton’s first try as well. If nothing else, we know for sure now he’s lethal going forward with the ball. He didn’t have to do a lot of defending so we can’t be certain about his ability in that regard. But we know he’s a threat. That’s set in stone now.
Timing and perception count for an awful lot when you’re trying to build a career. Three weeks ago, Craig Gilroy was just another young lad on the scene. He was an exciting prospect who had scored a few very good tries for Ulster on their way to the Heineken Cup final last season but that was about it. You might have thought he was one for the future, maybe somebody who could keep Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble honest in Ulster and hopefully take over from them in the next few years as they go into their 30s.
But look at him now. People are already saying he’s a certain starter for the Six Nations and even speculating on a possible Lions place for him. If Rob Kearney hadn’t been injured, maybe Simon Zebo would have kept playing on the wing and maybe Gilroy wouldn’t have got his chance. But he came in at just the right time and in just the right circumstances and he grabbed his opportunity.
He got his timing spot on and the perception of him changed almost overnight. That can happen with young players. Sometimes, they can come along and carve out their place without anyone really expecting them to.
The first day Denis Leamy came to train with the Munster squad, he ran around like a loose bull lashing into every tackle and causing mayhem.
John Hayes and I had a chat and said we’ll have to show this young fella what’s what here and give him a few clatters to calm him down. But Leamy made it very clear he didn’t give a damn who we were or what we wanted and he bounced back up out of every hit we put on him. It was the first day we met him but we knew right away that he was the real deal and he’d play for Ireland.
Cian Healy was the same when he came into the Ireland squad. You often see young lads coming in who people are hyping up but they find themselves a bit overawed when they join up with the national squad for the first time. Cian wasn’t like that. He had a little bit of an aura of confidence about him. You could see there was something special there, just in the way he operated, how he coped with a new environment, how he carried himself. Some guys get inhibited by being around older players who’ve been on the scene for a while but he wasn’t.
For established players, the arrival of a new talent can be exciting. Especially if, like the current Ireland team, you’re in a side that hasn’t been winning. You’re always asking lads from other provinces about players coming through and every once in a while they’ll say so-and-so is the real deal. They’re not always right but even the chance that they could be injects a bit of enthusiasm.
People always want to tell you that they’ve seen the next big thing. People in Shannon have been saying to me for a while that Luke O’Dea is going to be a serious player once he makes his breakthrough. I haven’t seen many Shannon games over the past two years but when he plays for Munster, his class is obvious. He could be another Gilroy if he gets the right break at the right time.
But these things are never set in stone. Circumstances change. People get injured, people lose form. Other players come through. Remember Matthew Tait? He played for England in 2005 when he was just short of his 19th birthday.
Everybody was predicting huge things for him but he drifted into the wilderness nearly straight away. He got injured for a few years, played sevens for a while, got back into the England squad and fell away again. He has had a decent career with nearly 40 caps for England but he never became the superstar or justified all the early hype..
Again, perception matters an awful lot. The coaches’ perception matters most but then there’s the perception among your peers, among supporters, among the media.
As long as Craig Gilroy stays healthy and keeps playing well for Ulster, Kidney will be asked about him every time he talks to the press between now and February. Every supporter – certainly from Ulster – will bring him up if they find themselves near Kidney at a match over the winter.
It will build and build to the point where he’ll have to start against Wales or the manager will be under pressure to explain why he didn’t. That’s the beauty of being a bolt from the blue. The ball is in your court and everyone is watching to see what you do with it. Gilroy has to go back to Ulster and work like a dog. He has to back it up and the best way to do that is to look at the likes of O’Driscoll, O’Connell and O’Gara who were all internationals at a young age and who got their head down and worked to improve every year.
Everybody will be advising Gilroy to keep his feet on the ground but that advice is too general. Players do best when they’re given specifics to concentrate on. What he needs to do this week is show everybody in the Ulster dressingroom he’s there to work hard. He’ll have players and coaches and staff taking the mick out of him, calling him a superstar.
All he can do is smile and get on with it and remember the surprise factor is gone now. Every game Ulster play now, he’ll make up some part of the opposition’s thinking. He’ll find he won’t be able to step off his right just as easily as he was on Saturday and he’ll find himself having to come up with new ways to beat his man. He’ll only get there by working and applying himself. He’s done the first bit. Now for the hard bit.