Sunday 19 November 2017

Gilroy sights trained on Ulster bid to foil Sarries' double vision

Craig Gilroy is hoping to continue Ulster's European momentum following last week's comeback win over Oyonnax (SPORTSFILE)
Craig Gilroy is hoping to continue Ulster's European momentum following last week's comeback win over Oyonnax (SPORTSFILE)
David Kelly

David Kelly

As he spied Andrew Trimble emerging from the tabac, it was all Craig Gilroy could do to stop himself singing "There's only one Andrew…"

Problem was, Gilroy could see two Andrew Trimbles. Wait, hang on. There's another. And another. And…

He is sitting in the departures lounge of Toulouse airport, hours after the greatest away win in Ulster's European history.

Gilroy had missed much of the game, removed from the field with violent effect just 12 minutes in after being dumped into the touchline dust by his Fijian marker; he has suffered a fractured eye socket.

He sees with difficulty and, when he does, he sees double, or treble, or… "It's not a great prospect seeing five Andrew Trimbles, let me tell you," smiles the Bangor man.

He can see difficulty yet nobody can see his; there are no obvious signs of damage, he feels little pain (yet), merely numbness, if anything, and he gets the sense that his team-mates - all 125 of 'em! - are wondering just quite what is wrong with their flimsy colleague.

"It was so hard to notice what was actually wrong with me," reveals the Ireland winger now, days after making a better-than-expected recovery by returning to France for Champions Cup duty last weekend.

"To tell you the truth, I was a little embarrassed coming back home on the plane because I didn't even had a black eye! I was thinking to myself, 'Maybe I should have played on'.

"But I would have done the team more harm than good because I would literally not have been able to see out of one eye. And I would have done more damage.

"I had the surgery on Monday when I realised the eye socket was broken. It was hard to tell what had really happened.


"It wasn't the pain on impact, the pain came later on the plane back. I had a sore head and we had to run tests to make sure the pressure wouldn't cause anything to explode.

"They were quite afraid my eye could explode with the pressure inside the plane. It can be quite dangerous. Dr Michael Webb was brilliant, he got me home."

He can laugh about it now but sometimes the consequences can be serious; it had, literally, been a hospital pass from the second-row Franco van der Merwe that had initially compromised him. "None of the guys or coaching staff could figure out what actually happened until we saw the slow-mo replay, the palm of the guy gets me right in the eye and that's the impact.

"My nose was bent right across my face and it's a wonder it didn't break as well. It's disappointing. It's just a stupid wee incident."

At least the Springbok lock bought him a commiserative beer; of which, of course, our hero saw multiples; none of which, of course, the doctors allowed him to drink.

Ulster still have work to do before they can sup from a celebratory jug; that they are still alive owes much to their latest trip to France, even if director of rugby Les Kiss and his selected starters almost made a hames of what should have been a facile task against hapless Oyonnax.

Instead, a shoddy half-back partnership and a scrum who decided not to engage mentally with the task in hand allowed the minnows to streak to a barely credible 23-0 half-time lead.

Rory Best was one of those culpable but he redeemed himself with his interval call to arms which has led one of his Ulster coaches, former Ireland international Niall Malone, to reiterate calls for the Banbridge beef farmer to be appointed captain of his country.

"Rory is a special person and we are lucky to have him," according to Malone. "A lot was mentioned of his half-time speech last week, and he walked past me after the match and even then he looked as if he was welling up around the eyes such was his passion. It's the emotion and what it means to him.

"An Ireland captain? Should be a shoo-in. He would captain Ireland the way he leads Ulster, and I would be amazed if there is a better candidate. He's been so good for so long and very reliable and as a captain and he is sure of starting, which some of the candidates may not be."


Gilroy is naturally more diplomatically discreet given that there are a number of proposals before Joe Schmidt - "Who knows? It's not for us to decide. There are a lot of candidates. He wouldn't look out of place."

But the respect he holds for his leader is obvious. "It was inspirational, he really got us going. And our response showed a lot of character in our group, we knew to a man it wasn't good enough and we had to get ourselves out of the hole.

"Rory spoke very well, he's our captain and he's there for a reason. We looked to him for words of advice, he fired us up and we took that belief into the second half.

"And it showed that despite the vast deficit, we were calm, we kept our composure but still threw the ball about. It was a completely different game.

"He just said what he was feeling, and we were all feeling it. He spoke about the jerseys we had on, the competition that we were in, and what was at stake. It wasn't good enough. We weren't doing our job. It wasn't us. And we needed to be us."

As they will need to be tomorrow for Saracens, heavy victors on day one in Belfast, will be their toughest test yet. Gilroy will have both eyes firmly focused on the opportunity.

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