independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Gilroy determined to turn up the heat this summer

Ulster winger Craig Gilroy is determined to finish the season on a high

The last three months have been a steep learning curve for Ireland and Ulster winger Craig Gilroy.

Coming off the back of his explosive arrival on to the international scene last November against Argentina, the hype surrounding the 22-year-old knew no boundaries.

Coach Warren Gatland instantly propelled him to Lions tour contention after his superb debut, and the raw injection of attacking flair he and Munster's Simon Zebo promised on the wing were heralded as the hallmark of a dynamic new Ireland. Six weeks later, though, he was picking himself up from the Roman ruins.

The Six Nations offered renewed optimism for a faltering golden generation. Day one went to plan, with the young pretender standing firm alongside Brian O'Driscoll when Irish backs were against the wall, his try-saving tackle on Leigh Halfpenny preventing an improbable Welsh revival late on. The Irish tails were up ahead of England's visit.

But after Cardiff, it all went downhill as, one by one, key players -- including Gilroy himself, who missed the France game -- succumbed to a succession of injuries.

SHACKLES

Bar his try against Scotland and a fine performance against Italy, the shackles were largely stifled for a battle-hardened Gilroy.

He describes the injury toll the players and coaching staff endured as "surreal", and admits that the Italian defeat was a real low point, but overall the youngster enjoyed his first campaign and was sorry to see the team's struggles cost the coach who gave him his chance his job.

"We knew we couldn't win the competition (in Rome), but with the talk of it being a few players' last game, we really wanted to prove something. It was probably the biggest disappointment," he explained.

"I loved the Six Nations, despite not doing as well as we should have, I feel I had a lot more to show and prove, and still have lots to show in the future.

"It's a fantastic competition, one I never thought I'd be playing in, and getting the opportunity to play with the likes of the guys that I did-- the O'Garas and O'Driscolls -- was a great experience.

"I was privileged to play under Declan. He'll always be that coach for me who gave me a chance, which is special."

Having made the step up into Ireland colours this season, the Bangor native has been touted as a potential Lion, something he is playing down -- although he admits the thought has crossed his mind, even if the summer tour to the USA and Canada may be a more realistic target.

"Who knows who he (Gatland) is going to pick? I honestly wouldn't put myself in the frame; there's definitely a lot of talent," he said. "It is every rugby player's dream to go on a Lions tour. It's very special and great to be a part of.

"A lot of players don't want to talk about it for fear of jinxing it, or don't think they'll get on it. There are some amazing players out there at the moment, both young and old, and the competition is very high."

And so while he will watch with intent Gatland's squad selection on April 30, Gilroy is also galvanised by the prospect of the Irish tour in June.

"If I thought a few years ago that I would be involved in a North America tour, I'd think you were crazy. It'd be great to travel the world, and would be a good learning curve as a player."

While speculating on his own prospects is something he is reticent to do, Gilroy believes that his fellow Ireland back O'Driscoll should lead the tourists Down Under this summer.

"I think from whichever country you are from, you would maybe favour someone from your own country. And so I think there's no better man to lead the Lions than Brian O'Driscoll," he said.

Gilroy watched on as his Ulster colleague Paddy Jackson struggled after being pitched into the team against Scotland. The out-half's form has been questioned, but his team-mate has backed him to bounce back from a difficult spring, while he is not writing Ronan O'Gara off just yet either.

"I went to school with Jacko and we always room together. I always knew he'd play for Ireland," he said. "I know him on a personal level, compared to ROG, but I've been watching Ronan since I was yay high -- I think he's still there and he's still got it. On terms of selection, the coach knows better than I do."

While the international season went awry in March, Ulster's campaign has also been derailed somewhat in recent weeks after the Heineken Cup defeat to Saracens at Twickenham.

Although he'll miss this weekend's derby clash with Connacht in Galway, Gilroy -- who turned 22 last month -- believes that the province can achieve redemption through the Pro12.

"If you look at the Leinster game (in the Pro12), I thought it was the best performances not only this season, but that I've ever been involved in in an Ulster jersey. The Saracens game was disappointing, because we have the players," he admitted.

"The Heineken Cup may be regarded as a bigger premier competition but the Pro12 is not something we would see as second best at all. We'd love to go the whole way and finish the season on a high.

"I'm dying to get something. We've put in a lot of work in the last few seasons and have come so far as a team. I think we deserve it."

Despite the misfortunes of the Six Nations, Gilroy doesn't take for granted the tough and enduring lessons it has provided from an individual perspective.

Despite some setbacks, that curve remains an upwards one -- regardless of what the summer holds for one of Ireland's most exciting young talents.

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