Craig Gilroy believes livewire fullback Michael Lowry has brought a “wow factor” to Ulster’s attack this season – and the stats back him up.
Prior to this weekend’s third installment of European action, Lowry had carried for 220 metres in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup, more than any other player in the competition.
He was also in the top five for defenders beaten, his nine elusive actions only surpassed by Munster’s Damian de Allende and Toulouse star Antoine Dupont.
Exalted company and Gilroy is backing the 23-year-old to continue adding to his reputation as Dan McFarland’s men bid to take a step towards the knockout stages of Europe.
A third successive pool victory at Northampton today (3.15pm) would guarantee Ulster, who conclude their conference campaign at home to Clermont next Saturday, a place in the last-16.
Gilroy – who misses the trip to Franklin’s Gardens – said: “I remember (former Ulster winger) Charles Piutau was a player in training and in matches where I was like ‘wow’.
“Mikey Lowry, albeit he’s quite small, also does amazing things. His acceleration, his agility, his bravery, he gives me a little bit of a wow factor as well.”
Gilroy, one of only eight Ulster players to win 200-plus caps for the province, has played alongside a lot of talented back three players in his 12 years at the Kingspan.
But he believes Lowry, who will win his 57th cap against the Saints, ranks alongside some of the most exciting players to have pulled on a white jersey in recent years.
He also likened the diminutive full-back, who can also play at out-half, to a former Wales and British and Irish Lions winger.
“He reminds me a bit of Shane Williams, who was one of my favourite players growing up,” said Gilroy. “I think he is a phenomenal talent. He’s a joy to play with and he’s also a great lad.”
While Northampton are without a win in Europe this season and lost 27-22 at the Kingspan before Christmas, Gilroy is taking nothing for granted.
“They’re fifth in the Premiership, they’re an unbelievable outfit and they are a really good attacking team,” he said.
“It’s a must win for us and you can’t switch off. We have to be on the money and on our game because it will still be a huge challenge.”
Ulster are without a raft of star names including influential captain Iain Henderson, scrum-half John Cooney and centre Stuart McCloskey who are all ruled out with injury.
But head coach McFarland is boosted by the return of flying winger Rob Baloucoune who has recovered from a shoulder injury picked up in a win at Clermont on December 11.
ULSTER: Lowry; Baloucoune, Hume, Moore, McIlroy; Burns, Doak; Warwick, Herring, Moore, A O’Connor (capt), Treadwell, Marcus Rea, Timoney, Vermeulen.