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Craig Gilroy is aiming to give Joe Schmidt 'a little bit of X-factor' in South Africa

The Ulster wing is keen to capitalise on his opportunity to impress during the tour of South Africa.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Rory Keane reports from Cape Town

CRAIG GILROY MISSED Joe Schmidt’s phone call when the Ireland head coach was seeking to get the Ulster wing on board for the summer tour last week.

Naturally, he called the Kiwi back straight away to learn that he had made the cut for the three-Test series in South Africa. Of course, there were mitigating circumstances.

Injuries to the Kearney brothers and Luke Fitzgerald after a ferocious Guinness Pro12 final opened the door for Gilroy, as well as Matt Healy and Tiernan O’Halloran.

Gilroy, the only Ulster player to be named in the Pro12 team of the season, initially missed the cut. You have to go all the way back to a clash with Georgia at the Aviva Stadium in November 2014 for his last start in an Irish shirt.

The likes of Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney have featured heavily under the Schmidt regime. Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Luke Fitzgerald have all seen plenty of game-time as well.

Gilroy, who scored 12 tries in 25 appearances for Ulster this season, has very much been on the outside looking in:

I haven’t played since Georgia and everyone wants to have played more, but the competition in my position is vast and you have to be that little bit better… have those ‘one per centers’ to play for Ireland. Right now I’ve put my head down and worked hard these last couple of seasons, and I feel like I’m getting the rewards for that.”

Trust seems to be a big factor in selection under Schmidt. Many felt his initial choices in the outside backs for the summer tour were based on past performances and an ability to operate under pressure within his system. Gilroy and Healy would have had every right to feel aggrieved to be left at home after their stellar campaigns.

“I think Joe does that obviously with guys who have played before and he will trust them, but at the same time he’s good at giving guys opportunities who are playing well in the league or are going well in training, and hopefully that’s something I can benefit from,” Gilroy explains.

Certainly, Schmidt asks a lot from his wingers at Test level.

“You do, and it’s good,” Gilroy agrees. “It means it will round off our game, and I hope to be able to do the stuff that I can do to maybe bring a little bit of X-factor and give Joe what he wants as well on top of that.”

Gilroy added: “He’s big in the air. He wants good aerial skills, something I’ve been working hard on back with the province. He wants stuff at the breakdown, stuff like that, not just someone who’s going to stand on the wing and wait for the ball, and try and do the fancy work; more of an all-round game.”

The 25-year-old faces stiff competition for a starting berth this month, with Earls, Trimble and Healy all part of the touring party. It’s also set to be a huge month for his Ulster team-mate Paddy Jackson. Johnny Sexton’s shoulder surgery and Ian Madigan’s decision to seek pastures new in France has given Jackson a clear shot at the number 10 jersey against the Boks.

“He’s been fantastic,” says Gilroy. “He’s been a joy to play with. It’s not just off the back of this season that I say this, I played with Jacko at school, underage level, U19s, U20s, provincially and internationally. I’ve always rated him highly. I always enjoy playing with him and no doubt if he gets an opportunity I think he’ll take it.

Craig Gilroy Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I think this has probably been his best season on a personal level. Not only was he able to deliver on the pitch physically, but he stepped up as a leader. He spoke well to us guys post-game, at half-time and he talks well on the pitch and commands the plays that he wants. He delivers with ball in hand and his kicking game has been fantastic as well.”

Les Kiss has had a major influence on Jackson’s game since he took over at Ulster after last year’s World Cup. The Australian has encouraged the young Ulster out-half to challenge the gainline and bring the province’s talented midfielders into the game at every available opportunity.

“He has and he’s done that because he knows Jacko is more than capable,” said Gilroy. “He has that smart rugby brain to make the decisions to take the ball to the line or if he decides to go himself… he’s a lot quicker than he looks.”

So, what would represent a successful tour for Ireland in South Africa over the coming weeks?

“Success for Ireland is, I think, to take it one Test at a time, to try and prepare as best we can and deliver on the pitch what we have prepared,” Gilroy concludes.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for a lot of guys. There’s a good mix. We’ve got some older, more experienced players and then we’ve got some new guys in, some guys who have never been capped before, so I think it’s a good mix and there’s a huge opportunity there.

“If you look, there were three Irish teams in our league who reached the semis and two in the final. Guys took a lot of confidence from that and there’s a lot of caps here as well. For the guys who haven’t been capped, some might be young but a lot of them are coming off the back of successful seasons… and are pretty confident.”

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