Two of Ulster’s young international hopefuls are preparing themselves for a real Thomond Park battle against Munster.
Craig Gilroy and Stuart Olding may have motored along different paths of late, but they are seeking the same end product. One, of course, is to be featuring in Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations squad, and the other is a little piece of Celtic League glory that has escaped Ulster for the past eight years.
Following their toppling of Guinness Pro12 leaders Ospreys last week, second-placed Ulster will be looking to put a bit of daylight between themselves and the team lurking menacingly just behind them, but they know Munster will be keen to gain revenge for a couple of defeats by the northern province in the last two seasons.
Gilroy set his tone two seasons ago with his wonder try in the European Cup quarter-final, which rubber-stamped his advance to the international stage. Since then, of course, he has come through tough times but he is now back in focus and almost back to his best. Olding, meanwhile, is the new kid on the block. Nurtured carefully this season after 12 months on the sidelines with a knee injury, Olding is a real Jack of all trades, but as yet, he is yet to be a master.
Olding again starts at full-back while Gilroy stays on the left wing in a backline that shows just the one change, with Ian Humphreys coming in for the injured Paddy Jackson at fly-half, while captain Rory Best returns to lead the side and Alan O’Connor is back at lock following his three-week ban.
For Gilroy, 23, the trip to Thomond excites him. “I loved playing at Thomond,” said Gilroy who returned to the international arena in the autumn following a frustrating season of injury.
“I do enjoy it. Not only is it a class stadium, but the Munster fans really appreciate good rugby. But it is going to be a very difficult game, a real Top Four shoot-out. It promises to be a really exciting game and they will be in good shape, having been boosted by a few players returning.
“They will be out for revenge. I played here last season when Ulster travelled fairly light and won. They are playing well, have key players back so it will be a great contest. I love the inter-provincials, playing guys who you shared a room with for three or four weeks in the Ireland camp,” said Gilroy who was glad to be back on the big stage.
“It was brilliant to be back. I really enjoyed the experience again and it was the first real campaign I had attended under Joe (Schmidt). It was a real step up in intensity.”
Meanwhile, Olding, still only 21, said it was class to be involved with Ireland. “It was a huge experience for me. Coming back off that knee injury it was one of my aims this season. I just wanted to learn as much as possible and I was delighted to get some game time. It has now given me a hunger for more,” said Olding who has only had one run-out at Thomond Park before but knows what to expect.
“Everybody’s game rises a notch or two,” he said. “The Munster fans are very passionate and always get right behind their players. The one thing we are always told is to focus on ourselves and what we have to do. Coming off the back of a good win last week, and coming into a very important part of the season, we intend to kick on and strive for that win.
“But we can expect a backlash after last May’s 19-17 win. Nobody wants to lose at home, and they will come right back us and probably use that as motivation.”
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