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Gilroy confident Ulster will finish on a high but he won't rush return

Edinburgh v Ulster, Guinness Pro14 Championship: Murrayfield, Friday, 7.35pm

Frustrating time: Craig Gilroy has been injured since October
Frustrating time: Craig Gilroy has been injured since October

By Michael Sadlier

Ulster are within touching distance of a place in the PRO14 play-offs and it's eating away at Craig Gilroy.

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He sits at the back of the room, when he can attend team meetings, and observes without being able to hugely contribute. But, then, such is the way when you're one of the long-term injured.

Denied any game time since last October's heavy European defeat at Racing 92, the 28-year-old has been slowly recuperating from a back problem and the chances of him being seen in whatever turns out to be the remainder of Ulster's season does not look all that promising.

"It's been frustrating but moping about it isn't going to make it any better," he admitted.

"I'm through the worst. I'm back running, and I can do a few more things, but there was a period when I couldn't do much and I couldn't put my socks on or if I could it would take about 10 minutes to do it.

"I've just got to take the positives and keep rehabbing."

He knew something was wrong but hadn't realised that a bone had been fractured on the left side of his back until a dye test was carried out.

Oddly enough he had the same back issue last season, though on the other side, yet that proved to be far easier to heal than on this occasion.

So, after nearly six months spent recovering and rehabbing - he recently "maxed it out" on an anti-gravity treadmill on what was 95% bodyweight - Gilroy badly wants to get playing again as much for his peace of mind as well as the clear physical challenge of it all.

"It's probably the biggest frustration not knowing when you'll be back," said the player with 168 Ulster appearances behind him already.

"After nearly six months I suppose another month or six weeks doesn't seem that long.

"I'd like to (be back this season) but at the same time I'll probably not push it because things (with the recovery) are going really well now."

Gilroy has seen much since his Ulster debut back in November 2010, both good and the not so, and reckons that Dan McFarland - in his first head coach role - has made a big difference to the squad's psyche after last season's turmoil both on and off the park.

"Dan (McFarland) has got really high standards and the guys have a lot of respect for him," he said. "He's just done really well as a head coach.

"He's got everything you want, he doesn't take any nonsense and he drives standards and is very involved but at the same time he'll let each individual be themselves.

"At the start of the season there was all this talk (in the media) about building a team for, say, two or three seasons' time and we were like, 'That's absolute nonsense, we want to do something this year'.

"We're still on track for that," added Gilroy of Ulster's prospects of making knockout rugby in the league for the first time since 2016.

"It just feels a bit different this year.

"We've built a good squad with depth and we're definitely going the right way."

Time will tell on that score with a win in Edinburgh this Friday night at least securing a PRO14 play-off place, and it could even allow the province to finish in second place in Conference B if Benetton are beaten by Munster, as well as bringing Champions Cup rugby Ulster's way for another campaign.

He'll not really feel part of it all again until he can run out and play, though Luke Marshall's return from his long-term knee injury - "I was nearly crying when I saw him," he admitted of the centre's scoring return in the recent European quarter-final defeat against old rivals Leinster - has given Gilroy another little boost ahead of having to ultimately compete for a wing berth with promising youngsters Robert Baloucoune, Rob Lyttle and Angus Kernohan.

"You can sometimes feel a wee bit separated," said the 10-times-capped Ireland player of looking on at so much activity while he remains firmly on the sidelines.

"I've been out so long now I would pop my head in (to team meetings) just to hear what the guys are doing, or what the theme is.

"I also need to know if there are any new calls so that when I come back they don't call something and leave me wondering, 'What is that?'

"And if any of the lads want to ask me something or if someone is doing video I can join in with that, or even sit at the back and just listen, especially when the backs are together."

For the time being, it remains a watching brief but it's hard to remain patient.

"When you see the team doing well you want to be involved in it," he added.

"It inspires me to push on, get back into the team and hopefully shine for them."

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