Thursday 22 March 2018

Quiet man Gilroy happy in shadows as Zebo steals the spotlight

Ireland's Craig Gilroy
Ireland's Craig Gilroy
Conor George

Conor George

AT 21 years of age, Craig Gilroy appears to have it all. He's an Ireland wing, has a knack for scoring tries, shares a dressing-room with his childhood heroes and is being whispered about as a possible Lion.

And to round off the package he has apparently been dating the reigning Miss Northern Ireland, Tiffany Brien, for the past number of months.

You want to hate the bloke, and when you consider his many blessings and that he's just starting out on a career with so much promise, you almost do. Then you remember how he smashed Leigh Halfpenny in the second half of the win over Wales last weekend.

He absolutely demolished the Wales full-back, disrupting what had been a promising attack up to that point.

And in that one moment Gilroy destroyed the myth that his defensive game isn't as explosive as his offensive.

"When you break out and make a tackle like that, you do feel relief that you got man and ball," recalled Gilroy.

"I remember seeing him on the ground and then I saw the ball just rolling away so I just thought 'job's not done yet'. There is no real rest.

"You haven't a second to rest and congratulate yourself. You just have to keep going."

Gilroy burst on to the international stage with a hat-trick of tries against Fiji in the non-capped international in November. He followed that feat with the opening try in Ireland's demolition of Argentina to round off the autumn series.

He was, at the time, the poster-boy for the Declan Kidney-led revolution Irish rugby is still undergoing.

The inclusion of Gilroy, Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony in the starting line-up for that final game in November, allied to the introductions of Dave Kilcoyne and Iain Henderson off the bench, put a particularly youthful sheen on the Ireland team.

Since then he's been somewhat overshadowed by the outrageous personality that is Zebo.

Gilroy is happy to be in the background. Zebo is, as Brian O'Driscoll described him this week, "one of a kind".

The Corkman feeds off the frenzy created by magical moments like his heel-flick in the lead-up to Cian Healy's try in Cardiff – skills learned on the field that was Avondale United's schoolboy soccer base, Beaumont Park, in Cork in the years before rugby became his sole sport. It obviously helped Zebo's skills that back then Beaumont was more field than pitch!

Gilroy is a more retiring character, content to let the spotlight shine on Ireland's left wing while he does his thing on the right.

"I don't really bother with that, the spotlight. Simon enjoys it, so he has his time there. As Brian has said, you can be flavour of the month. He's getting what he deserves and it's great for him. He's great fun."

The two wingers are polar opposites in terms of personalities, as O'Driscoll pointed out earlier this week: "Zeebs brings a great energy and a freshness. Craig is learning every day, he can see that, and he's thriving on that and they're just dealing with it in their own way. That's what works for them."

It's that contrast of temperaments that is enhancing this Ireland set-up.

Those who have now earned veteran status are feeding off the enthusiasm of those who are newer to the set-up and, as a team, Ireland are benefiting. Given how explosive his arrival was, it is sobering to realise that Gilroy was earning just his second senior cap in the game against Wales.

"It was a pretty big step up. You are playing guys – when they are with their Welsh clubs – week in and week out in the Rabo, and it is the same guys, but when you step up to that level it just seems much more intense.

"I noticed that more in the second half on Saturday than the first. The first (half) was going great. We were playing great rugby and we got a few points on the board, but they came back at us and it was a very physical game.

"International rugby is a bit of everything, really. It is very fast. It is more physical. The intensity at the breakdown was something new for me."

Gilroy's status as an Ireland wing is at odds with his situation in Ulster.

"After wowing the crowds in Thomond Park and the Aviva in November, he returned to his province only to find himself on the bench as coach Mark Anscombe went with Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble as his starting wings.

Gilroy's, and Zebo's, emergence on the international front has been at Trimble's direct expense. He won his 49th cap against South Africa to kick off the autumn series, but was released back to Ulster on the weekend Gilroy won his first cap.

It is a unique situation, as Gilroy acknowledged. But the 21-year-old isn't one to throw the toys out of the pram.

"As you can imagine, it can be a bit frustrating, but it is about the team at the end of the day and I can't let the frustration get the better of me," he said.

"I just had to take it on the chin really and back Mark's decision, keep my head down and try to come on and make an impact.

"If you look at the two guys who are ahead of me, Tommy and Andrew, they are international players with a hundred caps between them, so you can't be too disappointed, but at the same time you do want to be playing the whole time."

He did his claims no harm against Wales. There were a couple of wayward kicks and that early knock-on when he failed to gather the first high ball Wales sent to his corner, but he soon settled into the game and, crucially, his defensive effort was top class.

Gilroy will have Chris Ashton in his tramline this weekend, another winger he doesn't quite match size-wise, although that isn't causing him any distress.

"Chris Ashton is a great player. I remember the last Six Nations when I wasn't featuring, he was running in tries left, right and centre so I really rate him as a winger. He has got the full package.

"But going into a game you don't want to worry too much about who your opposite number is. You want to be focused on the game as a whole. I've been working hard on my defence with Johnny Bell in Ulster and with Ireland and I'm confident with that side of my game."

Gilroy wasn't in the frame for international recognition when England blitzed Ireland at Twickenham last year.

"That experience was so horrendous for those who lived through it that it's impossible even for the new faces not to reference it.

"That result is something all those who were involved would love to change. It's also something those of us not involved want to help put right," Gilroy added.

Irish Independent

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