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Jonathan Bradley: Fearless Ethan McIlroy the pick but all four of Ulster's debutants impressed at Leinster

Ethan McIlroy shone on his almost hour-long Ulster debut.
Ethan McIlroy shone on his almost hour-long Ulster debut.
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The most tries ever scored in a PRO14 game, and the most points ever managed by a losing side, Friday night's loss could live a long time in the league's record books.

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So too in the memories of the four youngsters who were given their first taste of senior action by Dan McFarland in the 54-42 reverse that saw the northern province claim a try bonus-point in defeat despite heading down the M1 having made 14 changes from the week before.

Once the subject of much consternation, the Ulster Academy has now witnessed 12 of its number promoted to the senior duty in the last two seasons, Ethan McIlroy, Stewart Moore, Jack Regan and Azur Allison the latest to reap the benefits of Kieran Campbell and Willie Anderson's labour.

Leinster's own underage systems remain the blue-print for success, as evidenced again by what was essentially their own second string on Friday, and Ulster will know that establishing a similarly effective production line for themselves is the only viable way to bridge the gap to their all-conquering near-neighbours.

To that end, even in defeat, Friday will have felt like further vindication of recent methods with the youngest player of all especially catching the eye.

Coming on for an injured Rob Lyttle after only 23 minutes, Ethan McIlroy was thrown into the deep end only some nine months after he played a starring role in Methody's Schools' Cup winning side. With his opposite number Rob Kearney having some 95 Ireland caps to his name, as well as three more for the Lions, the contrast in experience levels was stark but McIlroy seemed unfazed by the task or indeed a few early mistakes.

When throwing a no-look pass into touch in one of his first involvements you feared the worst but he rebounded admirably, essentially setting up the crucial fourth try with a calm take of a high ball and nicely executed chip and chase that forced Kearney into conceding a five-metre scrum.

Following the example of Angus Kernohan last season in turning a sub-academy spot into a senior bow, it wasn't the only occasion he showed a real willingness to counter of a box-kick, the contributing factor in his 67 metres gained with ball in hand, second on the team only to Craig Gilroy while he was also credited with two line-breaks.

A surprise selection, McFarland has been impressed by the former schoolboy athlete since giving him a chance in the summer.

"He played in the pre-season game against Glasgow and he was excellent there," said the coach who also had Academy men Joe Dunleavy and Callum Reid as travelling extras. "He scored a try, created a try with some nice offloads (in that game).

"He's a great fella. He's focused, has great footwork and has some pace about him. He deserved a shot.

"Not even a year ago he was playing in the Schools' Cup final and today he's marking Rob Kearney. He certainly plays without fear."

If McIlroy's lengthier cameo was the most eye-catching, the men who followed him into the action later in the game made their presence felt too.

Stewart Moore, well known to fans after his sensational try for the Ireland under-20s out in Argentina this summer, perhaps would have made his debut even sooner if not for injury having been handed his first exposure during the pre-season of 2018.

Replacing Matt Faddes with half an hour to go, he showed plenty of unpredictability in his carries, never more so than when colliding with his own team-mate Nick Timoney resulting in an accidental offside.

A 13 in the pure playmaking sense, he got his hands on the ball ten times and displayed a real ability to find himself a half yard of space where one didn't seem to exist while a neat offload from his own '22' saw his side go from one side of the pitch to the other even if he just misread the situation when Max Deegan scored from the base of a scrum.

His Ballymena Academy schoolmate and fellow class of 2019 Ireland under-20 international Azur Allison similarly looked to get involved in the attacking game to the tune of six meaty carries, one burst through the middle especially notable.

And Jack Regan too will have appreciated all ten of his minutes having been on the bench once before all the way back in the Jono Gibbes days without making it to the pitch. At 22-years-old the Leinster native is the oldest of the quartet and in a limited window hit a few rucks with vigour and played his part in some good maul work.

"It's terrific for them," enthused McFarland. "It's great we got to get those guys on the pitch and get some experience.

"When you speak to the guys before the game, that's what you say you want to see, you want to see them give it all they've got and not worry about making mistakes.

"They're going to make mistakes, that's the bottom line, but they can't play scared and I don't think they did."

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