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How Craig Gilroy uses statistics to up his game for Ulster

 

Craig showing off his pace
Craig showing off his pace
Making strides: Craig Gilroy on the charge
Craig with Luke Marshall

By Michael Sadlier

His world has been all about seeking high achievement for so long now that talking about living like this comes pretty naturally to Craig Gilroy.

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Targets are the currency of the elite player. Setting them, achieving them, even missing them, but always trying to then push on and attain more.

As such, Gilroy knows that even now - Ulster appearance No.178 is coming his way if called upon from the bench tonight - he is still very much a work in progress.

It's not just a matter of how many tries he scores, there is so much else in the frame.

Indeed, as the 28-year-old explains, he gets a read-out every so often of his overall stats and puts them up on the wall at home to ponder what has gone well and what needs to be focused on for the next match.

There is always work to be done anyway, but Gilroy's task has come into even sharper focus this season after spending most of the last one sidelined with a niggling back issue, as he is no longer a shoo-in for selection should Jacob Stockdale, Robert Baloucoune, Rob Lyttle, Matt Faddes and Louis Ludik all be fit and available.

"I like to know," said Gilroy of getting hold of his stats from games.

"So I'd go to Niall Malone (Ulster performance analyst) when we do a block of, say, three or four games.

"I'll go to him and he'll send me it across and I'll put it up.

"I've a wee office in the house and keep tabs on where it all is or where it needs to be, and then I can set mini-goals every week going into a game.

"So, say that last week I beat a couple of defenders, I'll say to myself, 'I want to beat more than that (next week), I know I'm capable of beating more than that, so that's what I want to do'."

So what about this week then? With Baloucoune and Ludik preferred as starters against Connacht, he will have to make do with what comes his way after putting in an 80-minute shift in the craziness that was the Leinster game.

"I think it's averaging five or six (defenders beaten). I'll always go for over five defenders beaten. That gives me that mindset to attack space, take people on and create chances for tries or to set up someone else," he explained.

Still, tries are his staple. Four have already been notched up this season, with his intercept in last week's frantic defeat at the RDS Arena being the first time he has crossed the line after going six matches without scoring.

If his pirouetting runs have not quite been as effective, nor indeed has he not been put in enough space to actually cross the line, there is still plenty that has gone right for the 10-times-capped Ireland player.

"From an attack point of view I've been up to where I am in terms of my defenders beaten and line breaks, which I'm really pleased about," Gilroy explained.

"When I get the ball in my hands I just want to attack, attack, attack.

"Being out for so long last year, it was tough at times, especially with the injury I had. A break in your vertebrae, it's not something where you can go in every day and do live contact drills.

"But it's just amazing being back. For that Ospreys game at the beginning of the season I was literally dreaming of that for six to eight months, I just missed it so much.

"It's just brilliant to be back in the squad and I've just to keep on my A game because there's a lot of competition and I want to keep improving and working and building."

His defence is also part of the overall package and one where, Gilroy admits, most of the work needs to be done.

"My defence? I'd be working with Jared (Payne) a lot still, I need to keep working on that and improving on that," he said. "That wouldn't be up to the standard where I want it to be, whereas attacking would come so naturally to me."

On the subject of things that appear natural-looking, the performance of Ulster's callow bench at Leinster was definitely a talking point with Stewart Moore, Azur Allison, Jack Regan and Ethan McIlroy all shining on their debuts.

With a decade or more in age between the debutants and Gilroy, his observations on this phenomenon had to be sought.

"You almost see a little bit of yourself in them from when you were starting, trying to remember what they might be feeling like from when I was that age," said Gilroy. "They did really, really well.

"I was chatting to Ethan a lot during the week and was saying to him to just keep talking, not to go quiet.

"Playing professional rugby can sometimes be overwhelming so I was saying, 'Look, just enjoy it and use your voice'. And he seemed to do that."

As for this evening, this is about the squad putting a consistent performance together and not something that resembles last week's late scramble of points.

It also happens to be the last game of the year. Well, decade actually.

"That's just another reason to win it," added Gilroy.

"Hopefully we can finish the decade on a win and keep that winning run going."

The 'run' is the unbeaten stretch Ulster are on at home - 17 games since they lost to Connacht at Kingspan Stadium in October 2018 which also happened to bring the westerners a first win in Belfast since 1960.

"It's kind of fitting that that was the last loss we had at home and it's an opportunity to put that right again," he said. "I think our home performances (since that loss to Connacht) have really strengthened it as a fortress.

"We're in a really good place at the minute."

And so, it seems, is Gilroy. He's just got to keep battling with those on-field stats.

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