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Dublin: 12°C Thursday 22 April 2021

Highly-rated Lowry stands up to the test on impressive Champions Cup debut

The 20-year-old enhanced his burgeoning reputation with an exciting display against Leicester.

Lowry made a blistering first-half break.
Lowry made a blistering first-half break.
Image: David Fitzgerald

Ryan Bailey reports from Kingspan Stadium

IT WAS AS early as the fifth minute when George Ford dropped a little deeper at first receiver to launch a booming kick straight down the throat of Michael Lowry, and in that moment it became clear what Leicester’s intentions were.

And it made sense. A 20-year-old making his second senior start, his first at fullback, and a Heineken Champions Cup debut on a night when the driving Belfast rain made handling conditions a thankless task.

But Lowry, nominally an out-half, stood up to the aerial bombardment throughout the course of an impressive and exciting 80-minute display, as Ulster — on the back of successive defeats — restored confidence and the feel-good factor with a 24-10 win.

The early signs suggested an uncomfortable night for the Ireland U20 international, who fumbled his first aerial contest with Kyle Eastmond after that Ford up-and-under, but he wasn’t deterred, rather fronting up manfully and dealing brilliantly with the next five kicks which came his way in the opening 20 minutes.

There was a brilliant moment not long before the end of the first quarter when Ford — having given the visitors the lead from the tee — looked to the skies again, only this time 5ft 7in Lowry executed the jump and catch to perfection under pressure from Jordan Olowofela before winning a big penalty for his side.

To a man, his Ulster team-mates were in to slap the youngster on the back and the crowd responded too. From that point, Lowry grew in confidence and stature and we saw a glimpse of his evasive running ability, exciting skillset and excellent and mature decision-making.

All of this was evident in a sweeping counter-attacking move initiated by the classy Will Addison, with the Irish-qualified back — deployed in midfield last night — breezing through the Leicester defence to feed the supporting Lowry on his inside shoulder.

The former RBAI captain, who guided his school to three Senior Cup titles, had support runners on either side but in a show of his confidence, backed himself to go alone as he weaved in and out, accelerating away from the Tigers shirts and towards the line.

Just as it looked like Lowry would embellish his European debut with a memorable first senior try, he was hauled down around the neck by Ford, who was sent to the bin by the French referee.

Strong under the high ball, Lowry made nine runs across 96 metres while making two clean breaks and beating five defenders. A deceptive turn of pace is just one of his striking attributes.

Michael Lowry is tackled high by George Ford Lowry was denied a try by a George Ford high-tackle. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“He did alright, didn’t he?” Ulster captain Rory Best laughed afterwards, the hooker himself putting in a huge shift before receiving a standing ovation from the near-capacity crowd upon his departure shortly before full-time. 

Given the importance of the game, the wet and windy conditions and the physical strengths of the opposition, McFarland was asked post-match if it was a big decision to start Lowry at fullback for the province’s European campaign opener.

“You make a decision if you think a player has got the ability to play and improve your side,” the head coach explained. “The guys know Michael well and I know him well from what I have seen of him so far. He is an exciting player, he is a confident player he is a really good footballer with great skills.

“The way we wanted to play, keeping the ball in play, would have suited him. You have to have a certain amount of trust in terms of what he is going to do as the fullback’s job.

“One thing we can certainly say about Michael Lowry, he is a brave young man.”

After being plagued by persistent groin problems last season, Lowry’s rapid development appeared to hit a roadblock, but now in his second year in the Ulster academy, he is more than making up for lost time.

“The frightening thing with Michael is that my Ben [son] is closer in age to him than he is to me. I think it shows the calibre of him,” Best continued. 

“We know how talented he is but we knew that he was going to be targeted. He comes back from that and won a class penalty on a 50/50 ball that he just said was going to be his. Some of these young guys, we don’t expect them to be perfect but we expect to see that attitude and he showed that in spades.

“Some of his handling out wide in what were really tough conditions is testament to him. Having seen him around the place for the last year, we saw a lot of him bouncing on swiss balls and stuff, but his work ethic is what we saw. He had an opportunity and he took it with both hands tonight.”

Indeed Lowry was involved in the majority of Ulster’s bright moves, as they showed more accuracy in the second half to cash in on swathes of possession and territory through tries from Alan O’Connor, Addison and Jacob Stockdale.

It was a much-improved performance from the northern province after a difficult couple of weeks and the result certainly leaves grounds for optimism heading into the rest of the pool stages, with a trip to Paris to face Racing 92 up next. 

The emergence of Lowry and the excellence of summer arrival Addison, as well as strong performances from their big players such as Best, Iain Henderson, Marcell Coetzee, John Cooney and Stuart McCloskey, augurs well for McFarland’s side going forward. 

As for their new kid at fullback, where does the head coach see him playing going forward?

“That is an interesting question, I am probably not expert enough to make the decisive decision on that, I would just like to see him play more,” McFarland added.

“Let’s see how he goes. He is an exciting prospect and I am sure you would agree on that.

“His ability to play ball, he has got speed, he has got agility, he knows when to give a pass, he is a good decision-maker and as I say he is really brave.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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