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'Even when Hugo knew he wasn't playing that Italy game he was helping me out'

Mike Lowry says Hugo Keenan helped him to ‘understand what the Irish coaches want from a fullback’ during the Six Nations.

Mike Lowry starts for Ulster against the Stormers.
Mike Lowry starts for Ulster against the Stormers.
Image: Tom Maher/INPHO

THERE WERE PLENTY of people happy to see Mike Lowry handed his Ireland debut against Italy during the Six Nations, but if there was one person who you wouldn’t have begrudged if he grit his teeth during his game then it was Hugo Keenan.

The Leinster full-back has been outstanding for Ireland since taking control of the 15 jersey, and was again during the Six Nations, but he admitted in the build-up to the Italy game he didn’t want to sit it out and was keen to keep playing.

But Andy Farrell decided to give him the week off, instead opting to bring in Lowry for a debut, and the young Ulsterman rewarded him with a two-try performance in another dominant win over the lacklustre Azzurri.

But, surprisingly, Lowry reveals that possibly his biggest supporter that week was Keenan, who proved to be a wealth of information in the build-up to the Aviva Stadium clash and throughout the tournament as the pair drove each other on to higher standards.

“We helped each other right through the campaign, that’s why Hugo played so well is because we were so competitive throughout,” explains the Ulsterman.

Even when Hugo knew he wasn’t playing that Italy game he was helping me out, helping me get up to speed and allowing me to understand what the Irish coaches want from a fullback.

“Hugo’s done brilliantly well, I can’t fault him at all. If you start looking too much into other players’ games then you start taking away from your own, but he’s so calm and he works really hard. You can see that on the pitch.”

But for the brilliance of Keenan, it seems likely that Lowry would have had more time in an Irish jersey during the championship after a phenomenal season so far at provincial level which has seen him nominated for European Player of the Year.

Instead, he had to settle for heading back up the road to Kingspan Stadium on a weekly basis to continue to star for Ulster – not an ideal situation, but it at least allowed him to keep churning out the performances that saw him called up and capped in the first place.

Continue that kind of form and he will surely be included in the squad for the summer’s tour of New Zealand, and Lowry admits that all he can control is what he does in a white jersey over the next few months – and that’s what Farrell asked him to do in the meantime.

“I had a few chats with the (Ireland) coaches and I suppose it’s about putting your best forward and proving yourself week in, week out,” he revealed.

“That’s the only way you get into those squads coming up in July in New Zealand, that’s the only way you solidify your position. It’s just proving myself each week is what was said.”

His first chance to put in another stand-out performance comes in the new environment of Cape Town, with Ulster set to take on the DHL Stormers for the first time in a competitive fixture as they bid to further their top-two ambitions in the United Rugby Championship (URC).

It’s a first trip to South Africa for the province since 2019, although they will not have fond memories of their last visit to the Highveld when they shipped nine tries in a 63-26 defeat to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, a feat they hope they won’t repeat at DHL Stadium today.

Besides that game Ulster do have a good record in the southern hemisphere, unbeaten in their other four ties – although three of those were against the admittedly poor Southern Kings – and Lowry believes they have learned lessons from that game at Toyota Stadium three years ago.

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“It’s such a different game that’s being played. The ball can be bouncing around, it’s fast and a lot quicker than you experience at home. You can’t really let the ball bounce. And even the length of kicking, it manipulates back fields and even front lines. It’s a completely different game,” explains the 23-year-old.

“I remember Ruan (Pienaar) was playing for the Cheetahs again and even the length of the passes he was throwing, that cuts out so many of your defenders, and at altitude it’s so hard to get set.

“Being ahead of the game this week is going to be important; don’t let them take out so many defensive numbers. We know it’ll be fast this time around, we were maybe a bit naïve before. We need to put our best foot forward.

“All the South African teams are playing some great rugby at home at the moment, they haven’t been beaten in South Africa yet, but it’s a test we’re really excited for because our attack hasn’t had the opportunity in the last couple of weeks.”

DHL Stormers

  • 15. Warrick Gelant
  • 14. Seabelo Senatla
  • 13. Ruhan Nel
  • 12. Damian Willemse
  • 11. Leolin Zas
  • 10. Manie Libbok
  • 9. Paul de Wet
  • 1. Steven Kitshoff (Captain)
  • 2. Chad Solomon
  • 3. Frans Malherbe
  • 4. Adre Smith
  • 5. Marvin Orie
  • 6. Deon Fourie
  • 7. Ernst van Rhyn
  • 8 Evan Roos

Replacements:

  • 16. JJ Kotze
  • 17. Brok Harris
  • 18. Neethling Fouche
  • 19. Connor Evans
  • 20. Hacjivah Dayimani
  • 21. Junior Pokomela
  • 22. Herschel Jantjies
  • 23. Rikus Pretorius

Ulster

  • 15. Mike Lowry
  • 14. Craig Gilroy
  • 13. Stewart Moore
  • 12. Stuart McCloskey
  • 11. Rob Lyttle
  • 10. Billy Burns
  • 9. John Cooney
  • 1. Eric O’Sullivan
  • 2. Rob Herring
  • 3. Marty Moore
  • 4. Alan O’Connor (Captain)
  • 5. Kieran Treadwell
  • 6. Greg Jones
  • 7. Marcus Rea
  • 8. Duane Vermeulen

Replacements:

  • 16. Tom Stewart
  • 17. Callum Reid
  • 18. Gareth Milasinovich
  • 19. Mick Kearney
  • 20. Jordi Murphy
  • 21. Dave Shanahan
  • 22. Luke Marshall
  • 23. Ethan McIlroy

Referee: Gianluca Gnecchi (Italy)

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