Craig Gilroy hungry for more Ireland action - but he must shine for Ulster first
CRAIG Gilroy is aiming to resurrect his Ireland career – using Ulster as the shop window.
Tonight the 22-year-old winger lines out against Scarlets at Ravenhill (7.15pm) in the hope he can begin to recapture the sort of form that saw him start in four of Ireland's five RBS 6 Nations matches in 2013. Then, Gilroy (left) was the new golden boy of Irish rugby – but then it all went pear-shaped.
A groin injury in April saw him miss the following month's RaboDirect PRO12 final against Leinster at the RDS and Ireland's summer dates in the USA and Canada.
After four months on the sidelines he suffered an ankle injury in what was only his third match back. Another seven weeks out.
Then he picked up a broken nose!
Now, however, he's bursting to get back to the level he was at just 12 months ago. A fine display tonight would help.
"Having had a taste of that (playing for Ireland) last year you just want to be involved," Gilroy admitted.
Not surprisingly Gilroy then featured in Ireland's 2013 Six Nations sides, too, starting against Wales, England, Scotland and Italy, only missing out against France due to injury.
But fast forward 12 months and you find him in the Aviva Stadium crowd watching Ireland demolish Wales last Saturday afternoon.
Hard to take for a 22-year-old whose form has suffered as a result of injuries.
"It was good to have been called up for the initial camp, but then when Joe (Schmidt) had to cut the numbers I wasn't involved," Gilroy said.
"I came away with positive feedback. I was told just to play well for Ulster and maybe I'd get another shot again."
Having watched Ireland beat Wales, his delight at the victors' performance was tinged with an understandable hint of envy.
"The atmosphere was brilliant. It was just such a good game. I thought Ireland played so well, especially our Ulster guys which was great to see. Trimby (Andrew Trimble) had a great match," was the fleet-footed winger's view.
"But it's hard to watch sometimes. Having had a taste of that last year you just want to be involved."
If he is to reclaim his place, first he must shine anew for Ulster. Tonight he gets another chance to do that, with sixth-placed Scarlets providing the opposition at Ravenhill. Gilroy rates them very highly.
"Scarlets aren't far off Ospreys.
"They're a decent, physical side and they like to throw the ball about as well. They've got a couple of sharp guys out wide, they have one or two younger ones coming through and they might be getting a couple of players back from the Wales camp so it will definitely be a bit of a challenge for us," was his assessment of tonight's opponents and the test they will provide.
His forecast on that count was spot-on. Hours after our interview, Wales released Scarlets front row pair Samson Lee and Emyr Phillips.
Gilroy was optimistic about Ulster's ability to cope with the threat.
"I think we'll take a lot of confidence from having just put a Welsh side – Ospreys – to bed. I think we'll be pretty confident going into this," he said.
"But we need a big performance for ourselves, for Mark (Anscombe, the coach) and the fans. We certainly owe Scarlets one after the away fixture against them," he added, recalling Ulster's 17-9 defeat in Llanelli on November 2.
Like his colleagues, Gilroy is keen to kick on from last week's hard-earned 10-7 victory over Ospreys at a wet and windy Ravenhill. He knows he as an individual and Ulster as a team can play a lot better than that.
Watching Ulster struggle in that match against the best of the four Welsh regions came as no real surprise to home supporters. They tend to do that following breaks in the programme as a result of international action. Friday was Ulster's first match in three weeks. It showed.
"We always seem to do really well leading into a break. And there's no doubt that it's nice to go into a break being comfortable and knowing where we are," Gilroy said.
"But it's really important that, when you come back, you consolidate where you are.
"Have your break but then straight back to work – that's what you need to do. So while we didn't play well against the Ospreys, it was fantastic that we managed to consolidate by getting the win.
"Breaks are something you just have to live with. It's the same for other teams in the PRO12 as well, though I know Scarlets played while we were off so they'll be good to go.
"Playing again after a break is more difficult mentally than physically. I think against Ospreys a few of us were still a bit asleep mentally with regards to where we should have been, time and place.
"But physically it's really important that you get time away. I had a week off and usually I'd be in doing a bit to keep my body ticking over. But this time I stayed off my feet completely for the week so I felt really refreshed coming back."
Asked how he winds down he said: "I go home, see the family, take my dog for a walk, play a couple of games of FIFA, go to the cinema with my girlfriend. Just relax and get away from it, really.
"I went to Donegal for a few days – and the weather was horrendous! But it was good just to get away for a couple of days."
Holiday over, Gilroy's work for Ulster continues in the hope that Joe Schmidt is watching and likes what he sees.