Craig Gilroy’s star just goes on rising. At 21 years of age he has the world — in the shape of an oval football — at his feet and fingertips.
If ever a youngster had it all ahead of him, it’s this Methodist College-nurtured, Dungannon RFC-honed genius. February and March will provide him with an gilt-edged opportunity to show just how very good he is.
With the eyes of rugby fanatics and casual observers alike upon him, this is Gilroy’s chance to dazzle, just as he did 10 weeks ago when he marked his arrival on the international stage with a gem of a try a mere 11 minutes into what hopefully will be a long and rewarding international career.
His touchdown against Argentina was the first of seven by Ireland that afternoon. Quite apart from the beauty of the score which followed two exquisite sidesteps, its importance in what was a must-win match cannot be over-stressed for as well as settling the team it whipped up the crowd. From the off, they loved him.
Ireland had scored only two tries in their previous five Tests, but by virtue of Gilroy having kicked open the Pumas’ door they went on to bag a further half-dozen. Gilroy had a hand in three of those, underlining his immense creativity and workrate.
Yesterday saw Ireland head coach Declan Kidney include him in the starting 15 for Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations Championship opener against Wales at Cardiff’s magnificent Millennium Stadium and bearing in mind the calibre of those the Ulsterman has queue-jumped, that was a massive vote of confidence.
Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald — both British & Irish Lions — have been superceded. So too has Fergus McFadden. And Ulster stable-mate Andrew Trimble.
True, a third Lion – Ulster’s Tommy Bowe – is missing at the moment, a lateral ligament injury having put paid to his hopes of involvement in the 2013 Six Nations. But he hopes to be back in mid-to-late April — just in time to stake his claim for a place on the 2013 Lions’ plane to Australia.
If he makes it, he could be sitting alongside Gilroy during the long haul Down Under, for despite the fact that Saturday will be only his second full international outing, already the boy wonder is being touted as a Lion-in-waiting.
In the warm afterglow of Gilroy’s remarkable international debut I wrote: “What an entertainer; every time he got the ball, the Aviva Stadium patrons were on their feet in anticipation of something special. The applause for his try — and the reaction of his team-mates — underlined the popularity he enjoys. But he is brave as well as brilliant. From start to finish, he was willing to take the ball into contact from where he was able to off-load, or, if that wasn’t an opinion, had the strength and know-how to keep it available until support arrived.”
It is quite remarkable that although he is still just 21, he has 60 Ulster appearances to his credit, 50 of them as a starter. Those include the final of last season’s Heineken Cup, a series in which he scored three tries. Already he has touched down on 16 occasions for his province.
Yesterday afternoon at the Ireland team’s Carton House base, fellow-wing Zebo spoke about playing in tandem with the Ulster ace alongside 2009 Lions full-back Rob Kearney.
Explaining the selection process whereby he and Gilroy came to be chosen the Munster flier’s modest assessment was: “It’s all about form and who’s playing well and I think everybody in the back division who was available for selection has been showing great form with their provinces. I suppose myself and Craig were just lucky enough to be able to get those spots on the wings.”
He does not have to spend too much time trying to recall examples of Gilroy’s finishing, for in addition to that November 24 try for Ireland against Argentina there is seared on his memory — and that of every other Munster rugby follower — the quite brilliant score he bagged against them in last Easter Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park.
“Craig is an extremely exciting runner,” Zebo ventured yesterday, before warning Wales, “so if we think there is a gap there we’re going to have a crack.”
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe and the province’s Director of Rugby David Humphreys have worked hard to ensure that in the midst of all the hype about him, Gilroy’s feet have been kept firmly on the ground.
Following his try-scoring international debut, he was given a 40-minute run-out against Scarlets in Llanelli and then dropped to the bench for the Heineken Cup game at Franklin’s Gardens where Ulster squared up to Northampton Saints.
Now, though, it is Ireland’s Declan Kidney who is naming the team and calling the shots. And to date he has made it very clear that he’s a very big fan. That being the case the next few weeks could be massive for Craig Gilroy.