RBS Six Nations: Ireland v England
On the bench for his club, on the wing for country.
Craig Gilroy’s circumstances are, in that sense at least, more typical of the Ireland footballers who faced Poland in the Aviva Stadium two days ago than those of the rugby variety who will face up to England at the same venue on Sunday.
With Tommy Bowe returning to Ulster last summer and Andrew Trimble already in situ, it was no surprise to hear the Belfast man declare this week that he never expected to be where he is now and yet he possessed enough foresight to shoot out of the line and dump Leigh Halfpenny with THAT tackle in Cardiff.
Declan Kidney’s decision to choose Gilroy on one wing and Simon Zebo on the other was framed as a brave but calculated risk last week and yet Ireland’s performance against Wales could be neatly summed up with snapshots of that inexperienced duo’s finest moments.
Zebo’s cheeky flick encapsulated the joie de vivre of Ireland’s attacking play in a sumptuous opening half at the Millennium Stadium while Gilroy’s perfectly-timed hit on the Welsh full-back served as a benchmark for a Herculean defensive effort after the break.
“When you make it, it is a relief that you got man on ball,” Gilroy says. “I actually remember seeing him on the ground and then I saw the ball just rolling away so I got up. There isn’t any time to congratulate yourself in Test rugby. You just have to keep going.”
Gilroy had heard older players talk about the difference between Heineken Cup and Test rugby in the past. He had faced most of the Welsh boys in PRO12 fixtures but nothing could prepare him for the intensity and pace of the game in Cardiff and that siege of a second-half in particular.
It is to his credit that he stood up to everything the pinnacle of international rugby had to throw at him, not least a Welsh backline that harvests speeds and size in the shape of behemoths such as George North and Alex Cuthbert and one which it was feared would wreak havoc on his lighter frame and that of Zebo.
“Going into that game you don’t want to worry too much about who your opposite number is,” he explained. “You want to be focused on the game as a whole but we can definitely take confidence from that.
“Defensively, that is a side of the game I have been working on a lot with Johnny Bell at Ulster and Less Kiss here so, yeah, I take confidence from it. I still wouldn’t take anything away from Alex (Cuthbert) and George (North).”
That diligence may well pay off again on Sunday. If England and Ireland pick the same wings he will be patrolling the same touchline as Mike Brown whose physique is little different to his own but it may well be that he finds himself facing down men like Chris Ashton or Manu Tuilagi at some point or other.
With ball carriers of such size and speed it is preferable to opt for a policy of prevention rather than cure. That goes for Ireland’s players from both an individual and a collective standpoint, something they know too well having allowed Wales to build up some steam in that regard in the Six Nations opener.
“That’s the thing. I came out of the line there because our defence was all scrambled. Everyone was all over the show and that was why you have to go get man on ball at some stage. I would trust our defensive system enough that if I do come out of the line then someone can come in under me.”
Notable though his contribution was, Gilroy has had to cede the spotlight to Zebo whose unorthodox footwork and relaxed charm has led inevitably to a greater chunk of the spotlight but both are being talked up as potential Lions and the Ulsterman doesn’t begrudge his teammates the limelight in the slightest.
“I get on really well with Simon. He is a good guy, a great player, and he has been playing very well. I don’t really bother with that. I’m not here to get my name in the headlines. I’m here to play rugby. Simon enjoys it so he has his time there. As Brian (O’Driscoll) has said, you can be flavour of the month. He’s only getting what he deserves.”
Picture: Ireland’s Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo go through their paces ahead of the clash with England on Sunday. Picture: Brendan Moran
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