Gilroy mapping Ulster route back to Ireland
Flying winger hoping to make up lost ground in the Pro12 run-in, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
CRAIG GILROY peers out on to the playing fields at Methody's Pirrie Park and realises the brevity of his journey.
Just five years ago, he trained and played on the pitches as a schoolboy alongside Paddy Jackson and, if you had offered him the things he has achieved by the age of 23 then, he'd probably have taken them.
Yet, throughout the conversation the word 'flip' comes up more than once. There is no doubting the education he received at this renowned Belfast rugby school gave him manners, but there is no hiding the frustration either. This has been something of a lost year.
Gilroy started his career like a train, scoring the first try at the newly redeveloped Lansdowne Road, shocking Munster with that famous, brazen Thomond Park try and bursting on to the international scene by threatening to save the Declan Kidney era with that try-scoring debut against Argentina.
It is just over a year since the Down man was being name-checked by Warren Gatland as a potential Lion, but the initial burst took a toll on his body and, during that disastrous 2013 Six Nations, it caught up on him.
Last month, he watched Ireland land the championship at Bangor RFC with a few friends and some Ulster team-mates totally removed from the set-up a year after being so integral.
While Simon Zebo was the cause celebre, the other buzz boy from a year ago had faded from the picture. Now he is determined to get back into Joe Schmidt's side by excelling for Ulster.
That road began last Friday when he scored a try in Ulster's cathartic demolition job of Connacht and he will look to continue in the play-off chasing weeks ahead, when second-placed Ulster face fourth-placed Glasgow, top side Leinster and third-placed Munster.
Getting into the team is his main challenge, given the strength of the options Mark Anscombe has.
"Tommy Bowe's back now and playing well; Trimby's had a fantastic season, he was unbelievable in the Six Nations," he says, assessing his task.
"It's going to be hard to get back in, but it's just a matter of keeping pressure on them and playing well. Everything changes, that's rugby."
That everything does change has been apparent over the past 13 months to a player who just rolled out of school apparently fearless as to what senior rugby represented.
"Things were going well. I'd never really had injuries before – I broke my jaw and that was about it," he recalls of the four unbroken seasons in which he racked up most of his 81 Ulster caps.
"It (the groin injury) was the first major blow, but it happens. It's part and parcel of rugby and you're susceptible to injuries. I suppose it's about how you bounce back.
"It was wear and tear, probably too much too soon from playing a lot of games and moving up to a higher standard from underage stuff to Ulster and then to Ireland, I suppose.
"It was really disappointing and I missed the first couple of starts in the new season as well. When I eventually came back, I had a high ankle sprain that kept me out for another two months, so it was a frustrating time.
"Thankfully, I'm back now and good to go. It's just a case of getting back in form. The positive to take from it was I was able to work on my strength and conditioning. I'm a bit bigger and have put on a bit more weight and got quicker as well. I'm glad it happened at the early stage of my career."
That is worth remembering – Gilroy is younger than Dave Kearney and Zebo; watching Andrew Trimble earn yet another international reprieve in recent weeks is a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change both ways.
Missing the summer tour cost him a chance to impress the watching Joe Schmidt, while being out in November denied him another window. Still, he was given a chance before the Six Nations when selected in the Irish Wolfhounds side to face the Saxons.
But things went disastrously wrong and he lasted just 50 minutes.
He wasn't seen again in green for the duration of the spring, while team-mates from that night, like Fergus McFadden, Ian Madigan, Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Tommy O'Donnell and Rhys Ruddock, all saw senior action.
"The Wolfhounds game, flip, I don't know..." he considers. "I think I just put too much pressure on myself to do well and show I was back. It was a crap night, things just kept going wrong and the weather didn't help. It was one of those games, the first time I've had one of those games."
While he was out of sight, he is not out of Schmidt's mind. The coach may receive criticism over his selections, but the players appear to have an open line of communication to the main man.
"Joe would be very detailed and very willing to talk to everyone individually and tell them what he wants," he says.
"He would give me things to work on and things to maintain. Stuff that he's seen that he likes and other things that he wants to get out of your game. He'd be very helpful that way and it's a case of taking on board what he's saying and doing it."
Even though he missed out on a Six Nations medal, Gilroy says he couldn't help but be happy for his team-mates.
"It was just unbelievable to go away, given the circumstances of the game, to do it for BOD. The Ulster lads were doing well – everyone was doing well," he says.
"It's just more fuel to the fire to get back there. Joe's very detailed, a very intelligent coach and he will back the guys that he's picked, but he'll keep guys in the frame."
He knows that performances with Ulster can get him on a plane to either Argentina with the senior team or Romania with the 'Emerging' squad at the end of the season and, in the wake of the Heineken Cup disaster against Saracens, the Pro12 run-in is on their minds at Ravenhill.
"I want some silverware. If I'm coming off the bench, I want to make an impact, to push for a starting place and play well, hopefully touch down and score a few tries which have been scarce this season, get my spark back," he concludes.
"Next time I get an opportunity in a green jersey, I'll definitely be looking to make a better impact."