Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Tyrone Howe: Gilroy lived up to all the hype

Craig Gilroy has shot on the scene at the highest level for club and country in the last seven months

On April 8 earlier this year Craig Gilroy announced himself on the European stage for Ulster in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup.

Gilroy lived up to all the hypeRising star: Craig Gilroy has shot on the scene at the highest level for club and country in the last seven monthson April 8 earlier this year Craig Gilroy announced himself on the European stage for Ulster in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup.

Less than eight months later on Saturday, he made the same statement only this time it was for Ireland. By any measurement it is a stratospheric rise.

While Andrew Trimble has done little wrong and will continue to fight for his Irish place, I was pleased to see Declan Kidney select on sheer form and give Gilroy his chance.

Opportunity in rugby, like all sport, counts for a lot and Gilroy took his with both hands.

He provides a refreshing difference to most professional rugby players and a real example to young players who aspire to be the best.

Firstly, in a professional age where rugby players are being turned into behemoths, he is not a physical giant.

At six foot and 91 kgs, his ‘stats’ are exactly the same as mine when I played. Yet, sadly that is where the difference starts and stops.

I have nothing but envy for Gilroy’s out and out pace and especially his balance and footwork. These attributes give him the ability to turn other giants inside out.

He also has a delicate blend of peripheral vision and ball-handling ability particularly before or in contact — these are invaluable qualities.

His example to others is clear — far too often schoolboys sacrifice skill and speed for size. Defence and contact are important prerequisites but the ability to beat a man is gold dust.

The country’s media are now jumping up and down in excitement and rightly so, because his international debut was sparkling in terms of confidence and talent.

Comparisons are often a journalist’s modus operandi and I have smiled at how Gilroy has been compared to both Shane Williams and Simon Geoghegan.

Having played against both those players, I feel in a reasonably informed position to comment. The stories of those true rugby legends also provide a salutary lesson to the young Ulsterman.

Gilroy and Williams are similar in terms of their balance and ability to avoid contact through their dancing feet.

Williams never seemed to lose pace as a result of changing direction, a feature that Gilroy appears to display.

Yet, they are fundamentally different. Williams is 5’7 and 80 kgs (12 and a half stone), a totally different shape and size and his sidestep was completely and utterly devastating.

You knew it was coming and you still couldn’t do anything about it. One on one in space he was unplayable. Williams’ international career spanned over a decade with 87 Welsh caps and two Lions appearances.

Over time, Williams’ workrate got better and better and the bigger the game the more he rose to the occasion — the ultimate gamebreaker. The longevity of Williams’ career and his ability to sustain a top level of performance should provide clear inspiration.

Then, compare Gilroy to my own particular hero, Simon Geoghegan. What they both generate is that air of expectation and electricity in the crowd when they get the ball, because one expects something a little bit special.

But, in far more ways, Craig could not be less like ‘Geo’. The latter was unique in the most unconventional way. He was an animal on the pitch — the most intense individual I ever played against.

Watching him emerge from a changing-room, he was like a bull released from a cage with steam quite literally snorting from his nose.

While the Ulsterman is subtle in his attacking lines, Simon did not have the most amazing footwork or actual rugby skill — he was incredibly quick and just attacked you and challenged you directly.

His defence was immense, bordering on assault, he seemed to crave the physical aspect of the game — basically a lunatic in rugby shorts and magnificently compelling to watch. One of the greatest rugby travesties is that Geoghegan never got to go on a Lions tour.

He was also forced to retire from the game in his late 20’s with ambitions slightly unfulfilled for the aforementioned reason. While he was excitement personified on the pitch, Simon’s story also shows how sporting excellence can end prematurely.

Therein lies the example for any young player. Work hard, aspire to greatness, and never take it for granted.

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