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Two years after lining out in Ulster Schools' Cup, Lowry on hunt for Champions Cup semi-final spot

‘It’s a remarkable achievement,’ says Ulster young gun Michael Lowry.

IT’S LONG BEEN said that Michael Lowry has a wise head on young shoulders, but even he couldn’t contain the excitement of reaching the knockouts of the Heineken Champions Cup.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates at the final whistle with Michael Lowry Jacob Stockdale celebrates with Michael Lowry. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Could you blame him though? In March two years ago he was lining out at Kingspan Stadium in the Ulster Schools’ Cup final for RBAI. This coming March he could be in the Aviva Stadium playing for a place in the last four of Europe.

In his maiden season with the club he might even begin to think that such progressions are commonplace, however his grounded approach to the achievement reflects how his squad are aware they’ve done something special.

Sure, Leicester aren’t the powerhouse of European rugby that they once were, and Scarlets had their fair share of injury problems. But the inescapable truth lies in the fact that completely unfancied Ulster progressed from a pool containing two of last year’s semi-finalists – that’s no mean feat.

Again, perhaps the manner in which they did so wasn’t overly spectacular – the 14-13 grind at Welford Road won’t exactly be burned into the memory – but that doesn’t matter.

At the end of the day, Ulster are heading to Dublin for a European quarter-final against interprovincial rivals Leinster, and you can guarantee there won’t be a single seat of the away allocation left unsold.

“As a team, it’s a remarkable achievement,” grins Lowry, who came on from the bench at fly-half in Leicester.

“People sort of wrote us off at the start of the season and said it was the ‘pool of death’. Scarlets were in the semi-finals last year; Leicester, titans of European rugby; obviously Racing are a star-studded side and finalists (last year) so to come out of the group with five wins out of six, we were pretty happy with.

Michael Lowry arrives Michael Lowry arrives before the recent clash against Leicester Tigers. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“We’ll try to keep that momentum going now. After the game on Saturday, it was great to get that win away at Welford Road and we fairly enjoyed that. We are looking ahead to the quarter finals now and get ourselves ready for that.

“For me personally, it was just great to be involved in those last two weeks especially being out for a wee while, couple of weeks there.”

He wasn’t just involved either. It was his almighty hoof out of the ground and halfway towards London that prompted the celebrations at the full-time whistle.

“I was just thinking lash the ball into the stand as far as I can!” laughs the 20-year-old.

“Look, the senior players emphasised throughout the week that getting to the quarter finals doesn’t happen too often so they relayed that to the younger boys coming through in their first or second season and how difficult it can be to get out of the group stage.

“The senior players really emphasised this was a massive thing to get through to the quarter finals, but you don’t want to stop at the quarter finals, we have to keep pushing on and try to be better each time.

“We didn’t perform to the best of our ability, we grinded out the win in Leicester, it was a ‘roll your sleeves up’ sort of game. We got the win but we want to build on our performances in Europe so far and really push for the quarter final.”

Building on his own personal performances is all that Lowry seems to have been doing so far, with the young fly-half turned full-back quickly becoming a regular fixture in the Ulster first team despite being a second-year Academy player.

Michael Lowry lifts the Danske Bank Ulster School's Cup RBAI captain Michael Lowry lifts the Danske Bank Ulster School's Cup in 2017. Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

Although a hugely exciting out-half in his schooldays as part of the RBAI side that won three consecutive Ulster Schools’ Cup titles, he’s had to bide his time behind Billy Burns for the No.10 jersey, instead settling for appearances at full-back.

The more cynical will say his talents are being wasted there, and if he ever makes a permanent return to the second half of the half-back pairing then that may be proven correct, but so far full-back has treated him very well.

Two composed and exciting performances against Leicester and Racing 92 in the 15 jersey had fans salivating over his potential, and you can’t help but think the Belfast starlet would have received more caps by now had it not been for a short stay on the sidelines.

Ironically, however, for all 5’6″ of him, it’s been his tackling that’s been the talk of the town recently, most notably a thundering hit on the rampaging Leone Nakarawa of all people.

“I think a lot of it is technique but a lot of bravery as well,” he says of the tackle, which saw him drive the Fijian superstar backwards despite conceding a full foot in height to him and weighing 30kg lighter.

“You can’t really think about what size the players are. I take it to my advantage a wee bit. I’m a bit smaller than a lot of the players so just going at their ankles maybe comes in quite handy sometimes!”

Of course, as fun as it was to watch the diminutive back sit down one of Europe’s best ball carriers, it’s not what he’s there to do most of the time.

A quick passer, with a keen eye for a gap and an ability to control the back line as if it was putty in his hands, Lowry has all the skills to be a top class fly-half, even though he hasn’t gotten an opportunity to prove it yet.

Michael Lowry on the attack Ulster's Michael Lowry on the attack. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

That doesn’t bother him though. With time on his side, he’s simply delighted to be getting on the pitch.

“I said before I just want to play as much as I can,” says Lowry. “If it’s 15, I’ll happily play there, but I like getting involved in the game so pushing into 10 or even first receiver as much as I can I just enjoy doing, so hopefully get a few runs at 10.”

Tonight, with the visit of Benetton to Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm), it’ll be another chance for Lowry to impress, albeit it will again be from the backfield as opposed to in the thick of things at No.10.

On the face of it, an Italian team in Belfast after reaching the European knockouts holds little appeal, but in the context of what is now an incredibly congested race for the final two play-off spots in Conference B, it matters a great deal.

With Leinster practically assured of their place in the end-of-season play-offs already, and likely as top seeds to boot, it leaves Ulster fighting it out with Edinburgh, Benetton and Scarlets for the two remaining places.

However, only two points separate the Scots in second and Ulster in fifth, meaning it’s all to play for during the Six Nations, with Lowry and his side eager to put themselves in pole position before a tricky finish to the campaign.

That can wait, however. Benetton, even if they have been shorn short of a significant number of their international players, will pose a significant threat having improved considerably under Kieran Crowley.

For Lowry, there’s more to it than just securing their spot in the top three though – he insists that it’s time for Ulster to answer a few questions surrounding their ability to bring their European form into the domestic sphere.

“I think it is going to be a massive game as they have quality players, big, physical side and they have quality ball carriers,” says the Academy star.

“They are two points ahead of us on the table at the minute, and it’s all fine and well doing well in Europe and winning those last few games against Racing and Leicester. But we have to back it up this week.

“But we will prepare well and look forward to this challenge. It’s a really good opportunity to show that we are a good quality side and have the chance to back it up.”

Ulster:

15. Michael Lowry
14. Robert Baloucoune
13. James Hume
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Louis Ludik
10. Billy Burns
9. David Shanahan

1. Andrew Warwick
2. Rob Herring
3. Marty Moore
4. Alan O’Connor (captain)
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Ian Nagle
7. Nick Timoney
8. Greg Jones

Replacements:

16. John Andrew
17. Wiehahn Herbst
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Matthew Dalton
20. Clive Ross
21. Jonny Stewart
22. Darren Cave
23. Robert Lyttle. 

Benetton:

15. Luca Sperandio
14. Ratuva Tavuyara
13. Tommaso Iannone
12. Marco Zanon
11. Monty Ioane
10 Ian McKinley (captain)
9. Dewaldt Duvenage

1. Nicola Quaglio
2. Hame Faiva
3. Marco Riccioni
4. Irne Herbst
5. Federico Ruzza
6. Marco Lazzaroni
7. Michele Lamora
8. Toa Halafihi.

Replacements:

16. Tomas Baravalle
17. Cherif Traore
18. Simone Ferrari
19. Marco Fuser
20. Giovanni Pettinelli
21. Marco Barbini
22. Edoardo Gori
23. Ignacio Brex.

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).

Just over a week out from the 2019 Six Nations openers, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look at Ireland’s bid for another Grand Slam:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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