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20-year-old McIlroy one of the big winners of the inter-pro series

The Ulster wing has shown his promise in three starts over recent weekends.

Ethan McIlroy started and finished all three of Ulster's inter-pros.
Ethan McIlroy started and finished all three of Ulster's inter-pros.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THE FESTIVE INTER-pros are often a launchpad for young Irish players and the 2020/21 series has allowed us to see a little more of the emerging talent in the provinces.

20-year-old Ulster wing Ethan McIlroy is one of the big winners from recent weeks, having put together three impressive 80-minute outings for Dan McFarland’s side as they beat Connacht and Munster before a frustrating loss to Leinster last weekend.

Earlier this year, McIlroy was part of the Ireland U20s squad that was on course for a Grand Slam but he has certainly looked at home in senior professional rugby with a string of promising performances in the Pro14.

Like any academy player, McIlroy has plenty to learn but there is no doubting that Ulster have unearthed yet another talented outside back.

McIlroy is not completely new on the scene. Indeed, he made his senior debut for the province back in December 2019, when he was still in the sub-academy, coming off the bench in the first half at fullback in a thrilling clash with Leinster at the RDS.

Only six months out of school at that stage, the then 19-year-old’s impressive involvements included this composed catch, chip and chase to force Rob Kearney into conceding a five-metre scrum after strong cover work.

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Having made that promising debut for Ulster just few months after winning the Ulster Schools Senior Cup with Methody College, McIlroy went on to show his talent in two starts on the right wing for the Ireland U20s in the 2020 Six Nations.

His sublime offload for Hayden Hyde’s try in the victory away to England was a particular highlight as McIlroy again showed his skillset.

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McIlroy would likely have been one of Ireland’s key men at the World Rugby U20 Championship last summer but that tournament was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

His upward trajectory has continued this season, with three Pro14 appearances in November and a Champions Cup debut off the bench against Gloucester in December. 

McIlroy gave up a yellow card and penalty try for an instinctive knock-on when he was left exposed out wide in that costly defeat to the Premiership side, with Ulster conceding their lead at the death as the youngster watched on from the sidelines.

The past three weekends have been far happier for McIlroy, however, with three consecutive starts on the left wing for Ulster.

As well as continuing to show his attacking qualities, he has been proficient in the defensive and aerial basics required of any wing.

Aerial

Having played plenty of his underage rugby at fullback, the 6ft 2ins McIlroy looks comfortable and confident under the high ball.

In the Pro14 so far this season, he has fielded 16 kicks successfully, with just one error under the high ball.

He has also shown good knowledge of the laws around the touchline in recent weeks, twice expertly keeping the ball in play from opposition linekicks in the manner below.

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In this instance, McIlroy keeps Johnny Sexton’s kick in play, denying Leinster an important attacking lineout platform just outside Ulster’s 22, while he did the same to Connacht’s Jack Carty in that inter-pro game.

In rugby’s law book, Law 18.2 (b) tells us that the ball is not in touch or touch-in-goal if “a player jumps, from within or outside the playing area, and catches the ball, and then lands in the playing area, regardless of whether the ball reached the plane of touch.”

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We have seen an increasing number of examples like this one in top-level rugby over the past year, with knowledge of the laws around the touchline often proving very important.

McIlroy has been reliable in the tackle too, completing 83% of his attempts in the Pro14 so far this season.

The decisive tackle on Shane Daly below was an important one in the home win against Munster.

Tackle

While Munster are arguably too predictable with their play here, McIlroy is aggressive in closing the space up to Daly when he makes his read, wrapping firmly to take him down and holding on to draw a penalty for the Munster fullback’s failure to release the ball.

Against Leinster last weekend, a fine McIlroy chop tackle on Sean Cronin opened the door for fellow back James Hume to earn a turnover penalty.

Working hard to cover backfield space is also a primary duty for any back three player and McIlroy showed up importantly in that regard in the instance below against Leinster, sweeping across to calmly gather in Ross Byrne’s grubber kick.

Cover

Composure in defusing this type of situation is important in the back three, all the more so since Ulster are down to 14 players after Marcell Coetzee’s sin-binning in this instance.

Every young wing and fullback must learn the demands of backfield coverage with each step up they take in senior rugby, meaning there are sure to be tougher tests ahead for McIlroy.

With the ball, he has been a real threat for Ulster.

There have been occasional errors such as a first-half knock-on inside the Leinster half last weekend, but McIlroy has shown consistent ability to beat defenders with his footwork, acceleration, and fight through contact.

He has made five linebreaks and beaten 12 defenders in his six Pro14 appearances so far this season. 

Carry

With Ulster still down to 14 players in the example above, McIlroy beats two Leinster defenders on a powerful carry into their 22, providing a platform from which McFarland’s men win a crucial penalty for John Cooney to kick them into a 9-5 half-time lead.

McIlroy has scored two tries so far this season, calmly gathering Billy Burns’ kick pass to dot down against Munster recently, having delivered this sharp finish against Zebre in November.

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McIlroy hasn’t kicked the ball in play often this season – just four times in total – so it’s unclear exactly what his skillset is like in that area. Young back three players generally have to work hard on kicking from hand given its huge importance in the professional game both as in a territorial sense and as an attacking weapon. 

The 20-year-old was a place-kicker during his time at Methody College but has not yet taken on duties off the tee for Ulster at this level.

It remains to be seen whether the province view him as a wing – where his four starts so far have come – or a fullback in the long-term but it is clear that if McIlroy continues to work hard, he can become an important figure for Ulster and perhaps Ireland too.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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