Leicester boss Geordan Murphy has described Irish rugby’s provincial set-up as brilliant saying there is a “conveyor belt” of talent to choose from.
Leicester travel to Ulster in their opening Pool 4 campaign at Kingspan Stadium, a venue the Tigers have never won at.
Former Ireland grand slam star Murphy cited the strength of Leinster to emphasise the success of the Irish system.
“Ulster have a very good record at home and we’ve not done well there in the past,” aid Murphy. “But the guys want to test themselves at the top table and we’re looking forward to it.
“The provincial set-up in Ireland, it’s brilliant.
“I look at the quality of talent of guys coming through and in the Irish academies, and it’s brilliant.
“You look at the back-row, where you get an injury to Sean O’Brien and you get Dan Leavy coming through. They seem to have a bit of a conveyor belt now.
“They have a huge pick of really talented players. The schools guys are effectively in professional environments from the age of 13 or 14, such is the quality of schools rugby in Ireland and it’s only growing.”
Murphy is well aware of Leicester’s record in Belfast: four European losses by an average margin of 23 points.
Academy star Michael Lowry will earn his Heineken Cup spurs this evening for Ulster. The 20-year-old gets the surprise call-up at full-back while Craig Gilroy, Will Addison, and Jordi Murphy return to the starting line-up.
The Tigers bring in Jordan Olowofela on the wing in place of the injured Jonny May while Brendon O’Connor returns to openside. Otherwise the Tigers are stacked with international heavyweights such as George Ford and Ben Youngs at half-back with Manu Tuilagi and Kyle Eastmond in the midfield.
Lowry’s selection is a big talking point. The Belfast-born former Ireland underage fly-half made his Ulster debut as replacement full-back in the trouncing by Munster in Thomond Park. Lowry’s rugby career was initially put on hold by a serious groin injury after he led his school RBAI to three successive cup wins. The injury sidelined him all of last season but following concentrated rehab he was back on the paddock for pre-season training, and clearly impressed.
During his school days, Lowry came under the influence of Dan Soper, who is now skills coach at Ravenhill, and was also his mentor at the Banbridge club. “I have worked with Dan for four or five years now, it makes you feel at home,” said Lowry, who stands 5ft 6ins and weighing in at 12 stone. “You know what he wants from you and you want to deliver that for him. I have so much trust in him and he has trust in me.”
On his injury frustration, Lowry was philosophical: “At the time I was pretty much at breaking point. But, saying that, it’s in the past now. It’s gone, I’m at peak performance now and it’s beneficial mentally and physically.”
Lowry has been primed for this day, having trained for the number 15 jersey since Billy Burns arrived from Gloucester. “I’ve played quite a bit in training at full-back. It’s beneficial to go out to 15, and from a kicking point of view as well if you’re in the back-field, you feel comfortable to kick back.”
Lowry will need that kicking game tonight, although it’s up front where the battle is likely to be won, says the returning Gilroy.
“They’ve got a really big pack, big forwards who carry ball,” he said. “But they’ve also got a great half-back pairing in Ford and Youngs.
“For us, it’s a case of looking after the ball, being disciplined, working on that back-field, the wind could play a part. We’ll need to be switched on.”