Craig Gilroy was seven when Ulster won the Heineken Cup.
He didn’t watch his native province’s 21-6 defeat of Colomiers in the 1999 final at the old Lansdowne Road; he was too young to be interested. But now it’s his turn and he is looking forward to Ulster’s first Heineken Cup appearance at the IRFU’s Dublin stadium since that occasion.
The mercurial 21-year-old winger’s incredible 16th minute solo try — which Ruan Pienaar converted — saw Ulster go 13-0 up against Munster at Thomond Park on Sunday en route to Ulster’s first semi-final since ’99.
Yesterday afternoon in Ravenhill’s new stand, minutes before Ballymoney II and Coleraine II set about one another in their derby Crawford Cup final, young Master Gilroy scanned the pitch and said: “I remember playing (for Methodist College) in the Schools’ Cup final in 2009.
“It was only three years ago but it feels like it was about 20 years ago. Everything has just happened so fast. It has been great. I’ve been working hard and all the hours of training have started to pay off.”
Whilst his rise has been meteoric, he is mindful of what Sunday’s achievement means to the Ulster public as well as the Ulster team.
“It was a dream day for us,” he said. “The atmosphere was just something else. To go down there and beat Munster was amazing and to get on the scoreboard as well just made it even better.”
And the response from others since getting home?
“I’ve had a lot of kind messages from friends and family and the fans, of course. The fans were just unbelievable; I didn’t expect that at all, just to see the number who had travelled down,” he said.
“I’ll never forget that bus journey into Thomond Park and seeing what we saw — the amount of flags and Ulster jerseys. It was quite emotional, actually, seeing that, so when I got out onto the pitch I wanted to do well for them for having made the effort to travel down and support us.”
Currently he is flavour of the month, the most recent conscript to the province’s celebrity ranks. While he is not blase about this new status, neither is he in danger of becoming carried away by it. He is grounded, though given his youthfulness you could forgiven for mistaking that as meaning that he won’t be allowed out for the next few days.
Revealing that he sometimes finds it hard to believe that he is a member of a team where his colleagues include World Cup winners and senior international players alongside whom he will soon be appearing in a Heineken Cup semi-final, he said: “You have to look past it and not get star-struck, just do what you’re there to do.”
He knows that the spotlight is on him at this stage, but his response when that was pointed out was: “I’ll just keep doing what I always do.
“It’s good to know that a lot of people support you, but I don’t really do it for the attention — I do it because I love the game.”