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Fit-again Craig Gilroy keen to make a flying start to Ulster's season

 

Battle ready: Craig Gilroy has been sidelined with injury since October
Battle ready: Craig Gilroy has been sidelined with injury since October
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

At last there's light at the end of the tunnel for Craig Gilroy after a long time battling through the darkness and the unknown.

In October of last year, the 28-year-old winger was withdrawn from Ulster's Guinness PRO14 clash with the Dragons in Belfast, citing back spasms. At the time, Gilroy himself said he didn't think they were that bad.

By the time he pulls on an Ulster jersey again - likely in one of next month's pre-season friendlies against the Glasgow Warriors - those back spasms will have kept him sidelined for 11 months.

In that period, he's had to watch on as Ulster resurfaced as a threat in the PRO14 by reaching the semis and also break the glass ceiling of the European pool stages to reach the quarters for the first time since 2014.

He's also had to watch on as others around him have stepped up to the mark in his absence. Robert Baloucoune has become a regular contributor after his explosion onto the scene from the Academy, likewise Angus Kernohan. Robert Lyttle is also back from injury and has picked up from where he left off.

For this season, Matt Faddes has arrived from the Highlanders too, while teenage Academy phenom Aaron Sexton is patiently biding his time to make his long-awaited senior bow.

But Gilroy is far from the forgotten man. He's still the top try scorer in Ulster's current squad with 60 and, with a sparkling step and searing pace, he knows his way to the try line - an innate ability he will never lose.

And, most importantly, he's not willing to give up his squad place in a hurry.

"It's good to be back training with the guys and doing everything, and I don't mean just training in terms of gym and running, but the full scale of rugby stuff, contact and everything," says the former Methody ace.

"It has been great to be able to do that and put the injury behind me and I want to finish this pre-season really strong and just get stuck in to the new season.

"I've really missed playing for Ulster and it has been just short of a year if I make that start to the season. Touch wood I'm good to go for that."

Last season Gilroy had a watching brief, stuck in the gym or the medical room while the team he wished he was a part of exceeded all expectations.

With a wave of young talent supplementing the first team squad, Dan McFarland's side soared to knockout appearances in both the Champions Cup and PRO14, earning plaudits and, at the same time, dispelling all the negativity around the squad from the previous campaign.

Then again, as Gilroy goes on to point out, it wasn't enough.

A fantastic league campaign only saw them win two more games than the year before and then end in a humbling at the Glasgow Warriors in the semi-final. Similarly, their best wasn't good enough to defeat a decidedly off-colour Leinster in their European quarter-final.

At the end of May, the trophy cabinet was still bare, and that's where the line between success and failure is determined.

"Last year we had a good season but we didn't win anything. Dan keeps reiterating, in terms of you guys, the outsiders, we had a good season, but that's not enough for us is what Dan's trying to drive," explains Gilroy.

"We don't want to be second best, we want to win something and we're taking gradual steps towards that, we're moving in the right way.

"It's the fine margins at this level that make the difference, and it may seem a small difference but it's actually huge. That was a huge step, to get to the semi-final and the quarter-final.

"I honestly don't feel like there's massive expectations or pressure on us, I feel like the organisation and the fans and the supporters... I genuinely feel like they trust and know we're on the right path now, and that's a great feeling as a player, and I've been around long enough now to know that they love to come and watch us play well and be competitive, do the jersey proud."

So with 2018/19 firmly consigned to the history books, the focus is on the future for Ulster and particularly for Gilroy as he looks to getting back to what he does best - contributing on the pitch with some highlight reel moments and jaw-dropping tries.

He has more competition in the back three now but, with it being a World Cup year, it's likely he'll get plenty of time to prove himself early in the campaign with Jacob Stockdale heading off to Japan.

It's also hoped that Ulster can make the most of the international window and steal a march on their PRO14 rivals with some big early results. Like Connacht's championship-winning campaign in 2016, they want to grab the initiative out of the gate.

But for Gilroy, that's not necessarily important. He sees that Ulster are improving and now he's excited to be back in the mix to lead them in the right direction once more.

"Regardless of it being a World Cup year or not, and sorry for sounding like a broken record here, but we are on the right path, and if we continue with what we're doing then the results will show and we'll have something physical to show for it," he adds.

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