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22-year-old Lowry's classy touches a bright note in a tough fortnight for Ulster

The talented playmaker showed his promise after moving to out-half against Toulouse.

THERE USUALLY AREN’T many positives to focus on after a 28-point defeat in a European knock-out game, but Ulster fans were excited by the performance of Michael Lowry at out-half in Toulouse last weekend.

The 22-year-old started the game at fullback but moved to out-half in the 16th minute when Billy Burns was forced off injured.

Lowry’s performance wasn’t perfect and he remains an inexperienced out-half at this level, but those who feel his future lies in the number 10 shirt now have more encouraging evidence to point to.

michael-lowry Lowry is a talented playmaker. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Lowry was an out-half as he helped Royal Belfast Academical Institution to three successive Ulster Schools Senior Cup successes from 2015 to 2017, captaining the side to the third of them under current Ulster skills and kicking coach Dan Soper.

However, the playmaker has been picked at out-half for just one of his 16 senior starts for Ulster so far. Lowry, who missed much of the 2019/20 campaign due to injury, has done well at fullback for his province and he certainly offers a threat from the backfield.

His lack of size – he’s listed at 5ft 7ins and just 75kg on Ulster’s official website – may be one of the reasons Ulster have resisted using Lowry at out-half more often, but he is a brave defender even with that lack of bulk.

There is also the possibility of Lowry developing into a Damian McKenzie-esque second playmaker from fullback for Ulster, which certainly makes sense and would be a positive development in their game.

The injury-riddled Will Addison is the first-choice in this role for Ulster but Lowry’s ongoing growth as a player provides another strong option moving forward. 

Starting at 15 on Sunday, Lowry had a couple of early touches, including one after a break from out-half Burns.

Burns cuts through the defence after a pivot pass from number eight Nick Timoney, with the out-half dummying to dart outside Toulouse hooker Peato Mauvaka.

1

If Burns can draw Toulouse fullback Thomas Ramos [red below] up into tackling him, there’s a big chance for Lowry [yellow] out on the right given that there is no other player in Toulouse’s backfield.

2

However, Burns passes to Lowry early and that allows Ramos to drift out onto the 22-year-old…

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… and force him back inside, where the retreating Romain Ntamack makes the tackle and the Mauvaka jackals to win a turnover penalty.

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Burns stays down injured directly after Wayne Barnes’ whistle here so it seems clear that he was injured even as he made his linebreak, perhaps explaining the decision to pass the ball so early.

It goes down as a missed chance for Ulster, one of a few in this game, and Burns leaves the pitch less than five minutes later, with the introduction of Matt Faddes meaning Lowry moves to out-half.

Having found touch from an Ulster penalty, Lowry’s first attacking involvement at out-half is classy.

Chip

It’s a beautifully weighted chip from Lowry on first phase of the lineout attack to turn Toulouse’s linespeed against them, with the out-half calibrating his kick perfectly to allow outside centre Jame Hume to catch it on the full.

Lowry played with 22-year-old Hume throughout their days in school together at RBAI and even before that, so there is a strong understanding between the pair.

Hume offloads to Faddes and Ulster are then left with a gilt-edged opportunity on the next phase, which they butcher.

Miss

It’s a 5-on-2, with Lowry part of it, but Jordi Murphy attempts a skip pass when simple hands would have likely done the job and it goes forward.

Moving to out-half meant Lowry was part of Ulster’s frontline defence and he is an obvious target for opposition ball-carriers given his relative lack of size.

In the instance below, Toulouse send powerful centre Pita Ahki running at Lowry off a scrum, with John Cooney coming from the inside to assist in the tackle.

Tackle

There is no doubting Lowry’s bravery and he has a track record of taking down much bigger men, but like most out-halves he tends not to win the gainline on first-phase defence.

In this game, he completed seven tackles and missed two – with one of those misses coming in the lead-up to a Toulouse try.

Try

To be fair, this isn’t really about size at all.

Lowry is on a slight drift line out to Ulster’s left as they reorganise following a kick chase, meaning that Sofiane Guitoune can step back onto Lowry’s exposed inside shoulder.

The Ulster out-half will be frustrated to get beatn on his inside shoulder, but he would have hoped that the person hunting from his inside – Sean Reidy in this case – would complete the tackle. However, Reidy slips off Guitoune after getting into a good position to haul him down.

It’s obvious that Lowry’s lack of bulk will make him a target any time he is in the frontline but he largely makes his tackles down low with a minimum of fuss.

It’s worth noting that Lowry did continue to spend time in the Ulster backfield after moving to out-half, particularly after restarts or long kicks, but the same is true of virtually every 10. Lowry also demonstrated his good instincts on one occasion to scramble back from the frontline.

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Toulouse have an attacking scrum on the right-hand side, but a big shortside means Faddes [yellow] has to start up high.

Fullback Jacob Stockdale [red] is out on the openside behind the rest of the backline, with Lowry  [white] in the standard out-half slot close to the scrum. Toulouse decide to test Ulster’s system here with an 8-9 play to their right followed by a grubber kick.

Lowry

Lowry is really just playing to Ulster’s system in this instance but he shows his awareness and anticipation to scamper across from the openside and gather the ball with plenty of time to spare before passing to Stockdale, who opts to run the ball out.

Lowry also showed his counter-attacking instincts very shortly after this as Toulouse spilled the ball in a promising position.

Counter

Having been in the backfield as Mauvaka broke, Lowry sweeps towards the hooker’s poor pass to the supporting Antoine Dupont without hesitation, accepting a clever little pop from Jack McGrath to surge upfield. 

It all happens in the blink of an eye but Ulster will be disappointed with some of the support play here. Turnover ball is the time for every player, but especially a back three player, to come alive. In this instance, Stockdale [red below] makes no effort to keep up with Lowry.

Stock

The Ulster fullback jogs upfield rather than bursting into life eager for a possibly try-scoring chance on turnover.

Even on the second phase after Lowry is tackled, there is no sign of Stockdale imposing himself when a fullback is required to do exactly that in moments like these.

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It’s not difficult to imagine what a player of Stockdale’s attacking quality could have done steaming onto the ball on this second phase above, but he is not even in shot. Toulouse recover and turn Ulster over a few phases later.

Lowry has good skills under pressure and we get an example below as he gets the ball away to Stockdale with Yoann Huget rushing up on him.

Pass

Lowry’s catchpass skills give Stockdale some time on the ball and while there’s no glaring overlap, it’s a chance to stress Toulouse’s defence or at least make it over the gainline.

Instead, Stockdale wanders across the pitch, eating up space rather than preserving it, and then throws a poor pass that forces Rob Lyttle into touch. From the ensuing lineout, Cheslin Kolbe scores his second try

Lowry is obviously still an inexperienced out-half in senior rugby and some of his decision-making as Ulster chased the game in the second half left his team in tough situations.

TO

In the instance above, Lowry opts to steps back inside and carry but is well tackled by Ntamack, allowing Julien Marchand to jackal for a turnover penalty.

Matty Rea and Rob Herring will have been disappointed with their lack of urgency into the breakdown but Lowry might wonder whether he could have passed inside or outside in this instance.

A little later, his crossfield kick leads to Toulouse scoring through Ahki.

Crosser

Ulster are trying to make something happen from deep here as the game enters the final quarter but Huget is well-positioned and makes a strong catch before offloading to Ahki, who finishes brilliantly with a grubber and regather.

Lowry never stopped trying to make things happen as the game petered out and he delivered a nice assist for Cooney’s consolation score in the 72nd minute.

It comes from a midfield scrum after Toulouse opt to finish the game with only 14 players, moving flanker François Cros into the backline.

Reidy and Alby Mathewson play a dummy 8-9 move to the right…

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… which Toulouse buy, as Stockdale [yellow below] shows good ‘animation’ on Ulster’s right side, only for Mathewson to pass back across to Lowry on the left.

Scrum

That gives Lowry lots of time on the ball, while the dummy play has also delayed Toulouse fullback Ramos from working across to his right in the backfield, although he doesn’t exactly sprint flat out when he realises what’s happening.

Lowry takes full advantage of the space and lack of pressure on him by delivering an accurate diagonal kick to Cooney, who has been repositioned onto the wing at this stage.

Try

Lowry finished the game with an error as he missed touch with a linekick with the clock ticking into the red, denying his team a shot at another consolation score.

However, there were signs of his creativity, skillset, bravery, and counter-attacking instincts that have rightly given Ulster fans some optimism in the wake of what has been a disappointing fortnight with defeats to Leinster and Toulouse.

Having played most of his rugby for Ulster at fullback, it will be fascinating to see if Lowry’s future lies at 15 or whether he begins to push for more starts at out-half.

- Originally published at 11.02

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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