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Tom Hamilton
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Tom Hamilton was brought up underneath the stands of the Recreation Ground and joined ESPN in 2011. He is now Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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Six Nations
The rise and rise of Gilroy
Tom Hamilton
January 30, 2013
Ireland's Craig Gilroy streaks away for a score, Ireland XV v Fiji, Thomond Park, Ireland, November 17, 2012
A familiar sight - Craig Gilroy sprints away from the flailing defender © PA Photos
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Players/Officials: Craig Gilroy
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Teams: Ireland | Ulster

While legendary Irish duo Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell are starting to turn their mind to life after rugby, the bright young things around the Ireland camp are starting to emerge from the shadows and into the spotlight. Much is expected of the next generation and none more so than Craig Gilroy.

The Ulster winger will look to continue a remarkable season when he takes to the Millennium Stadium turf on Saturday in just his second Test for Ireland. It has been a season packed with tries, headlines and nerves and it could yet end with a spot in the British & Irish Lions squad with coach Warren Gatland having already singled out Gilroy as one player who has pleasantly surprised him this term.

High praise indeed but Gilroy is not getting carried away. Despite his tender age of 21, his ascent has been a long time coming. Last season he scored a stunning individual try against Munster in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and there was a clamour for him to get the nod on Ireland's tour of New Zealand in the summer.

As it transpired, Gilroy's summer rugby was restricted to a non-cap appearance against the Barbarians - a game where he scored a brace of tries - and the next time he pulled on the green jersey, he bagged a hat-trick against Fiji for the Wolfhounds after missing out on Test selection for the Test against South Africa. Ireland coach Declan Kidney bowed to public pressure and named Gilroy on the wing against Argentina in their final match of the autumn series and the decision paid dividends.

"I sort of knew that I wasn't going on the tour to New Zealand and to play in the Baa Baas game I had nothing to lose and it did go really well," Gilroy told ESPN. "I was really pleased with my performance and I thought that I might get another opportunity in the green shirt, after the tour of course. And then the autumn internationals came around and I wasn't involved in the South African match.

"I was frustrated as I started to think 'what do I have to do to prove myself in a green jersey?' But then I got the opportunity against Fiji and it was a great night. It was a relatively new and youngish team and we all bonded and trained well. I was then lucky enough to be brought into the senior team against Argentina and get my first cap."

And despite his pre-match nerves - Gilroy claimed he "was extremely nervous to the point where I thought about jumping in my car and driving back to Belfast" - he flourished against the formidable Pumas. He bagged the opening try of the game and looked at home in front of the 43,406 crowd. It is something that he will have to get used to.

His club side Ulster looked destined for some silverware at the end of the season having only lost two games this term, with Gilroy one of their primary attacking weapons, and more caps for Ireland beckon. But while his birth certificate will have the date March 11, 1991, next to his name, his rugby brain is far more developed with some comparing him to Simon Geoghegan and Denis Hickie.

"I'm still 21 but I've played 60 times for Ulster and have a cap," Gilroy added. "I try not to see myself as a young guy and I've had more than enough experience and game time and almost not rely on the fact of being a bit younger. You know, sometimes things go wrong and people say 'Ah he's only young, it doesn't matter.' I try not to think like that. I take criticism like any other."

And this 'old head on young shoulders' theme continues with Munster's Simon Zebo. He got his chance against the All Blacks and then against South Africa and Argentina and there are clear comparisons between the two individuals who will occupy the No.11 and No.14 shirts for Ireland on Saturday. While Zebo is a year and five days Gilroy's senior, they have the same eye for a try-line and both are blessed with impressive speed.

"I chat to Zebo all the time, he's a class player and I really rate him. We chat a bit and we only really get to see each other at Ireland camps but we're the same sort of age and we have a lot to talk about. We hang out and play a lot of table tennis."

You cannot help but wonder, however, how much longer Gilroy will be allowed the anonymity to play table tennis with his friend. Such is the case with sport that when a youngster emerges on to the international stage, media attention and supporters clamouring for autographs will inevitably increase. But he claims it is something that "he will just have to take".

© PA Photos
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But come 1.30pm on Saturday, any thoughts of table tennis will be put to some far corner of his brain. He will be coming up against Alex Cuthbert and George North and he is fully aware of their threats.

"They are two class players and both have established themselves very well both for their clubs and for Wales. They did very well last season and we know a lot about them. I will be kept on my toes."

He will now take to the Cardiff field in the same team as the man who he grew up idolising as a child at school - Brian O'Driscoll. He admits that it does get "surreal" sometimes in training when he are receives a ball from one of the modern era's great players but it will become second nature in time. And there are perhaps greater things in store for the winger this season.

If Gilroy's stock continues to rise as it has done this season, then Gatland's hint that the Ulster winger is in the Lions reckoning may come to fruition. But in typical fashion that befits Gilroy, he will be taking it all in his stride.

"I heard that a bit (Gatland's praise) but I did not want to think too much of it. I just wanted to go back to Ulster and to keep my feet on the ground and try and improve as much as I can."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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