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How Michael Lowry survived a baptism of fire to take his place as Ulster's rising star

On run: Michael Lowry charges ahead against Leicester in
the Champions Cup last year
On run: Michael Lowry charges ahead against Leicester in the Champions Cup last year
Tigers time: Michael Lowry arrives to face Leicester Tigers at Welford Road
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

It's a Saturday morning scene no doubt played out across numerous houses throughout the Stranmillis Road, the densely populated street sought after by students thanks to its proximity to Queen's University.

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The earliest of the late risers is waiting for his flat-mates to surface, and a few games of Fifa help pass the time.

By the time the whole group has gathered, the television is switched to Bath's hosting of Toulouse in the Champions Cup. All present are attending the Ulster game against English heavyweights Leicester Tigers later on, but chat about the contest which their day is centred around is conspicuous by its absence.

The second clue that not all is quite what it seems comes only when one eschews the more traditional bacon sandwich for chicken and pasta.

For while all will soon make their way to Kingspan Stadium, they don't all have a ticket. Michael Lowry doesn't need one. In the middle of this student house's living room sits Ulster's starting full-back for the visit of the two-time European champions.

Pre-match meal polished off, he goes through his usual process as he drives to the stadium, including banishing the thoughts of what might go wrong. Earlier in the day, he watched a figure as experienced as Freddie Burns blow a game by failing to dot down before celebrating... if it can happen to him?

"Obviously Leicester were going to go after me," he says almost a year on. "I knew that from the start, it was inevitable. If we were in that situation, a guy making his first start at full-back, it'd be the first thing we'd do. I'm not expecting anything different there."

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Tigers time: Michael Lowry arrives to face Leicester Tigers at Welford Road

The position itself, never mind the occasion, remained new to him then, his debut in the senior side a fortnight prior against Munster coming off the back of only a week or so's training at 15.

The bus trip down to Thomond Park is spent peppering defence coach Jared Payne with questions about the position.

The return journey takes place in a starkly contrasting silence.

Although Lowry acquitted himself well, including a try-saving tackle in the corner on Alex Wooton, he sits beside James Hume, his team-mate since their first year of secondary school, both unsure how to process the realisation of their dreamed-of dual debuts ending in a record 64-7 humiliation.

The Leicester game is a different story, a full-strength side expected to get a result rather than a ramshackle collection sent to fulfil a fixture. It's for that reason, him the perceived weak link, that he knew the aerial barrage was coming.

Sure enough, at the first chance, Ben Youngs hoists a ball skywards, it comes down knuckling in his direction and is spilled to the turf.

Jacob Stockdale was first over in his ear offering words of encouragement, but the bombs would keep coming. A long afternoon beckoned, but then a moment that, in the context, seemed extraordinary. When Leicester went to the well again, and Jordan Olowofela charged at him menacingly, it didn't matter to Lowry that he ceded a half-foot in height and more than a few kilos, he leapt up and claimed the ball as his own, the act greeted by the Kingspan Stadium crowd like a try. In that instance, Lowry belonged. He has done ever since.

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On run: Michael Lowry charges ahead against Leicester in the Champions Cup last year

There was little rugby in his blood. An uncle had shown promise in rugby league and flirted with Wigan - "Uncle Kenneth, built like a door," says Lowry. "I really thought I was getting his genes when I was young... Obviously not" - but there was no driving force.

That was until his grandmother sat him in front of an All Blacks haka as a five-year-old. Doug Howlett, Carlos Spencer and Tana Umaga had him transfixed, even if he didn't yet know who they were. It wasn't long before a friend's mother suggested he came along to Dromore minis. The club's Barban Hill ground can be a test of anyone's enthusiasm - "it can be sunny everywhere else in the world... it'll be windy at Barban Hill," laughs Lowry - but he was hooked.

By the time he pitched up at RBAI as a rugby-mad first year, the second most successful school in the land were enduring what by their standards constituted a drought - three years without a Schools' Cup title.

Old rivals Methody winning three in a row as he moved through junior school hardly helped the mood, but those who had seen Lowry in action, alongside Hume, Callum Reid and Rhys O'Donnell, knew the tide was turning. When they won the Medallion Shield in 2014, Lowry was the try-scoring captain. By the time he'd finished school, everyone in Ulster rugby had heard of the diminutive out-half who had led Inst to their own hat-trick of Schools' Cup titles.

"In first year we beat Methody at home 12-0 and I just remember everyone saying then that was the first time it had happened in a long, long time time, everyone was delighted," he recalls with clarity.

"We started to realise we had a good side but Ballymena Academy (featuring Angus Kernohan) would beat us all the time up until fourth year. We beat them 3-0 early in the season and then again in the Medallion final.

"Year on year we got better and better and then Dan Soper came in to take the seniors. I remember just right away you could tell he loved rugby, lived and breathed it, sure enough we got the three-in-a-row.

"I still remember so much about those finals. It's such a big crowd for a school game and then the atmosphere...it's crazy.

"The whole school is behind you and, at the end of the day, it's just a bunch of schoolboys so they're not going to be quiet like are they? It's hard to hear yourself sometimes out there.

"When we were in the home changing room, it's unreal. It's a taster almost...you imagine what it would be like to play your first Ulster game."

Now, he doesn't need to imagine but his style hasn't changed much since, he still boasts that all-too-rare trait of elusiveness in a sport dominated by size, still using his vision to find gaps rather than contact.

He plays with a smile on his face too, a 21-year-old who says it would be counterproductive to forget that the opportunity to throw a ball around with friends is one to be enjoyed.

It was no surprise to see him laugh off the now infamous Simon Zebo incident back in the autumn when the former Irish international was admonished by referee Nigel Owens for taunting his way across the try-line. Zebo's jersey still has pride of place among Lowry's keepsakes, sandwiched between an Ireland Under-20 top and the one from his Ulster debut. All mementos of a memorable year.

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Lowry and Simon Zebo share an embrace after the now infamous incident in the European Champions Cup.

A summer trip to Budapest with a cadre of young Ulster players, followed by 10 days in Croatia with his girlfriend Lauren - the latter, he says, more relaxing than the former - offered a chance to pause, but focus has already shifted.

"Everything in life happens so quickly, you can't reflect on it," he says. "I wouldn't be one to look back, maybe only on the night of the game and then it's onto the next one. I'm always thinking what's next.

"It's really nice to look back, and I'm sure I will because those moments are special, they don't come across twice, but you need to look forward."

No bad place to look when blessed with such potential - Willie Anderson has already dubbed him the Damien McKenzie of Ulster Rugby.

How does that comparison sit?

"Well, there's worse things to be than an All Black, isn't there?" he asks.

The very same thought he had sat in front of his grandmother's TV all those years ago.

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