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Chris Henry: Fearless Michael Lowry has got to take himself out of the firing line

Perfect ten: Michael Lowry needs to stay on the field rather than take on big men
Perfect ten: Michael Lowry needs to stay on the field rather than take on big men
Rob McCusker

By Chris Henry

I always enjoyed playing with Ian Humphreys as my out-half. He was a player so talented that when you watched him it was akin to seeing the conductor of an orchestra. He was a player who would bring a backline to life with the tempo he could inject into the game.

But as Ian would no doubt say himself, tackling wasn't what would have been considered his favourite part of the game.

It was hardly a secret and, unfortunately, one season saw me given a near permanent reminder. It was against Biarritz in 2010, a game on my birthday no less, when what started out as an attempted tackle from the man in our No.10 jersey ended up with an opposition player being swung round smack bang into my face. My nose exploded and the six stitches would open up whenever I made a tackle the rest of that season.

Not, it's fair to say, the present I was looking for to mark that particular occasion.

But that's rugby. Everyone has different jobs and there's no getting away from the fact that part of mine was to help him out defensively. I looked at it almost like a left tackle in the NFL - protecting an attacking asset like those guys are paid to make sure people aren't hunting down the quarter-back.

That relationship, and how to give such talents the best chance to succeed, was something that came to mind when watching Michael Lowry getting his first start at fly-half in Ulster's win over Ospreys last weekend.

I never got the chance to play with Mike, his debut coming shortly after my last appearance, but whenever he came into the Ulster set-up two seasons ago a few things were immediately clear on the training paddock. This was a talented guy, one that wanted to soak up information like a sponge, and one who wouldn't shirk any of his responsibilities.

That includes in defence. We all saw the tackle on man mountain Leone Nakawara against Racing, one that brought to mind the old adage of the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

That principle didn't apply on Friday night, though. When Rob McCusker was coming at him full bore, the simple physics of the situation - ceding some 10 inches and 30kg - spelled bad news.

Sure enough, it was the end of Lowry's night. There's no point in denying that if the shoe was on the other foot, he'd be a player that you centred in on. Part of our pre-match plan used to be looking at the opposition and seeing who we'd be sending Stuart McCloskey into, even having a few five-man lineouts up our sleeves to get the big ball carriers running into the 10 early.

It wouldn't be in Lowry's character to hide defensively but maybe it's time he was encouraged to box a little smaller. There are ways to move your 10 around the park and away from traffic.

Billy Burns has shown his class since his move from Gloucester, but there's no doubt Lowry will be a huge part of Ulster Rugby over the next decade. Whether that is in a 10 or 15 jersey, Ulster have to find a way to keep him on the field.

Despite a bit of Ospreys pressure late on, and the need for a big turnover from Andy Warwick at the death, Ulster held on without him in this instance, securing a much-needed win. Well, they can't all be pretty, can they?

Watching the game it seemed like the type of pitch that will have taken a fair bit out of the legs and it felt like the decision to move the game to Brewery Field from Liberty Stadium acted to level the playing field a bit.

There wasn't much to write home about but Ulster certainly created more chances and there were good performances from a few players we haven't seen much of, with Pete Nelson being one that springs to mind.

It can be a strange time with the Six Nations on but when you look at those April fixtures that Ulster have - Glasgow, Edinburgh and Leinster in the final three - it was a hugely important win, no matter how Ulster got there.

Just as important will be getting a full five points against Zebre this weekend. With the race for Champions Cup spots heating up, it's going to feel like there is more and more at stake.

The talk will no doubt be of one game at a time but, realistically, looking down the track Ulster need a buffer for those last few weeks.

An unexpected slip-up in any of the next three games really could be so, so costly.

Belfast Telegraph

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