Change of attitude and mentality gives 30-year-old new lease of life
The recent defeat at a dank and dismal Thomond Park still brought back that memory, you know the one, when Craig Gilroy exploded into that epic Heineken Cup quarter-final, scattering red shirts as he slalomed his way to the line.
That day is nearly a decade ago and he is still around Ulster, with just over a double century of appearances along with a hatful of tries but, of course, no winning medals.
With Gilroy due to turn 31 in March and out of contract at the end of this season, you might expect some willingness to reflect since his debut in autumn 2010. But no. The winger, who won 10 caps for Ireland, is not prepared to invest in picking out storied events.
“I’m playing well (now) and I want to continue to do so,” he says. “I feel fit, I feel healthy and I’m really enjoying this season.”
With a lot of starts already behind him in this campaign — though, admittedly, Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune’s injury issues have been of benefit — Gilroy has clearly rewarded Dan McFarland’s faith in him with a number of attention-grabbing performances and a clear upping in his all-round game.
However, with Baloucoune fit again, there is no place for Gilroy today in the match day 23. Even so, he will be more than ready to push again for his place for the next game with Clermont as the winger can absorb more now in terms of his role in the squad.
As the recent recipient of an Open University legal degree explains: “I suppose I’ve changed my mind-set a wee bit. For me it’s probably bringing something a little bit different and relaxing, really, and just enjoying my job.”
In terms of what occurred to alter his mind-set, the longest serving player on Ulster’s roster cites the pandemic as being the main driver in fuelling his current approach.
“Covid came, lockdown happened, we were playing behind closed doors and all that stuff just really took that enjoyment away,” Gilroy says. “I still loved my rugby, and I was still grateful to play, but it really just took the enjoyment away and made me think, ‘am I ever going to feel [that excitement] running out on a Friday night to a packed stadium again?’”
The only options were to let things slide or hit the reset button with some intent. Gilroy chose the latter and racked up last summer with not only a different mental attitude, but also a noticeably greater presence on the training paddock and game-day pitch.
“I love my job and I had that mind-set going into pre-season and going into training and it’s paying off. I’m playing well and being rewarded with some game time which is fantastic. And playing out there [Kingspan] again in front of a packed stadium has been amazing.”
Some of his defensive work has caught the eye which has clearly aided his cause and especially so in these days of 50/22s and the need for back three players to cover more ground.
“It can be quite an open space out there on the wing and it’s [defence] something I’ve been working on for ages. It’s one thing to make a read and a tackle but to have a dominant collision as well is another thing and that’s something I wanted to do.
“I think I’ve always been pretty good at making reads, but I wanted them to be dominant collisions and make an impact. That’s a big lift for the team. If I go and whack someone behind the gain-line that’s a huge win for the team, while the crowd love it, Dan loves it and Jared [Payne] loves it. So everyone is happy all round even if I do hurt my shoulder a bit.”
And so to today’s third round of the European Champions Cup at Northampton — where Ulster won in last season’s Challenge Cup run — and against a side looking already out of the reckoning. With Ulster very much intent on a strong finish in the group and similar presence in the knock-out stages, this is a huge game.
“You can’t be caught off guard by that [Saints’ lowly position] because teams in the past who have been in the position have produced an unbelievable performance,” states Gilroy, who scored the bonus-point try in last month’s hard-fought victory against the Saints which made it two European wins from two for Ulster.
“We have to be on our game. The focus is on us because it’s a huge challenge and a must-win for us. We can’t switch off.”
And Gilroy won’t. He will be ready to do battle for his place again come Tuesday’s training.
Northampton Saints: G Furbank; C Skosan, T Litchfield, R Hutchinson, T Collins; D Biggar, A Mitchell; A Waller, S Matavesi, P Hill, D Ribbans, B Nansen, C Lawes, L Ludlam, T Harrison. Reps: J Fish, E Iyogun, E Painter, A Ratuniyarawa, A Coles, J Augustus, T James, T Freeman.
Ulster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S Moore, E McIlroy; B Burns, N Doak; A Warwick, R Herring, M Moore, A O’Connor, K Treadwell, M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. Reps: J Andrew, E O’Sullivan, T O’Toole, S Carter, G Jones, D Shanahan, I Madigan, B Moxham.
Referee: P Brousset
Northampton v Ulster
BT Sport 3, 3.15