Sunday 8 December 2019

Ulster reaping rewards of peace as Gilroy’s loss to Gaelic football spells trouble for Leinster

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IF ULSTER complete the job on Saturday and end a 13-year wait for their second Heineken Cup triumph, it will be Craig Gilroy's try at Thomond Park that will dominate the highlights reel.

It was a joyful moment on a gritty day as this fearless, fresh-faced 21-year-old took on Munster on his own and won. Ulster's success may be built on the foundations of their teak-tough South Africans and resolute defence, but it was this young man from Bangor, Co Down whose virtuoso effort captured the imagination.

Gilroy was just seven when David Humphreys lifted the European Cup on that famous January day at Lansdowne Road. As with most children that age, the magnitude of what was happening passed him by, particularly because he was, by his own admission, more into soccer and Gaelic football as a youngster.

The lines have been blurred in the post-peace process world and Gilroy and Ulster team-mate Declan Fitzpatrick both played Gaelic as youngsters, while returning hero Tommy Bowe was a Monaghan minor.

Things are no longer black and white north of the border.

Young, confident sports stars like Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell bestride the world stage, often demurring when confronted with the complexities of the issue of their nationality and managing to represent everyone at once.

It is not all sweetness and light -- as the recent Twitter travails of soccer star James McClean demonstrated -- but things are getting better and these young men represent a new dawn.

Gilroy is from the same neck of the woods as McIlroy and played his Gaelic football for St Paul's, Holywood in the world No1's home town.

St Paul's club secretary Fearghal Eastwood remembers picking a young Gilroy up to bring him to games in the south of the county.

"We're a small junior club, we're really the only football club in north Down, and Craig was a lad who lived in our catchment area in Bangor," he explained. "You could see that he was a bit special and the one thing that defined him was his speed -- he has been able to bring that to the table as a rugby player.

"Craig was quick, fast and brave. He was a big strong lad and always a good fielder of the ball -- a midfield dynamo. He has said that playing Gaelic football has helped his rugby in terms of fielding the ball."

St Paul's, Eastwood explained, do not discriminate when it comes to its players, and the club attracts youngsters from all backgrounds.

"We would have plenty of lads from mixed marriages and plenty of Protestant kids playing for us, and that reflects the area we live in," he said. "As a club we don't care where you're from, we just want you playing football.

"The calmer environment helps, but also in the last 10 years in our little club, we have got to grips with structures at underage.

"The world we live in is better and we are much more active and out there than we would have been. There's a lot of crossovers in this part of the world -- people don't care what religion you are, they just want to play sport."

Gilroy was part of his small club's first ever success, winning an east Down U-16 'B' as a 12-year-old in 2004 and scoring a crucial goal.

He developed into a ball-winning midfielder who could have gone on to play county football, but when Ulster schools rugby powerhouse Methodist College got their hands on him and saw what he could do, the youngster was fast tracked to the senior provincial set-up.

Despite only turning 21 in March, he has played 42 times and scored 14 tries for Ulster, also becoming the first player to score a try at the redeveloped Lansdowne Road and earning a call-up into the Ireland squad for this month's meeting with the Barbarians.

One of his predecessors on the Ulster wing, Tyrone Howe, has been impressed with what he has seen.

"I really like the look of Craig, he has blossomed through the season," the former Ireland international said before warning against getting too carried away with the impact of the end of the Troubles on Ulster's fortunes.


"I would be sanguine about 'it's all about the Troubles coming to an end' and 'bringing people off the streets and onto the rugby pitches'. It's more that it's a professional world and good decisions are being made. They've got a quality side and things have worked for them."

But there has been a definite softening of attitudes and the GAA community has rallied behind the Ulster cause. And Eastwood explains that they are easier to spot than you might think.

"If you go to Ravenhill on a Friday night, you will see so many Gaelic people in the crowd it is incredible," he said. "There's an interesting wee thing, the old Ulster flag is a white flag with a red cross, but the more Irish-minded people say the true Ulster flag is yellow with the red cross, and you would have seen plenty of them at Thomond Park.

"I've been laughing at that, there's a bit of infiltration, but sport should unite and not divide."

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