Less than a year ago, Ethan McIlroy was playing in the Danske Bank Ulster Schools’ Cup with Methodist College. Last night, he made his first senior appearance for Ulster at the home of the current Guinness PRO14 title holders, Leinster.
The Abbey Insurance Ulster Sub-Academy prospect made his competitive debut earlier than he expected, coming on in the 24th minute for Rob Lyttle who was forced off with injury. The young back three player had an impressive introduction to the senior squad, making 84 metres, 10 carries and 4 defenders beaten.
“I was surprised to get on so early but I was happy to get the ball in my hands and build into the game. Leinster proved to be a very tough opposition and the hits were very hard.”
McIlroy was part of a successful Celtic Cup campaign with Ulster A, coached by Kieran Campbell and Willie Anderson, and while the calibre of rugby was extremely high, he noticed the further step up in intensity last night.
“It was a big step up in physicality compared to games I had played in before; it’s so fast-paced and you have to be on your feet straight away. As we saw with Leinster’s try as a result of the cross-field kick, you just can’t switch off at all.”
“We scored a lot of points in the second half,” he said. “We were so disappointed with our performance in the first half; we went out there in the second half to put as many points on the board and try to build back into the game.”
McIlroy wasn’t the only player to make his senior bow last night; Academy players Azur Allison, Stewart Moore and Jack Regan also made their first appearances for Ulster, which offered comfort to the wing / full-back.
“It gave me a lot of confidence, especially getting some game time making my first appearance with the Academy boys. It was a great experience.”
Congratulations to the four players who earned their first Ulster caps tonight, with some impressive contributions as well 👏
Ethan McIlroy, Jack Regan, Azur Allison & Stewart Moore. pic.twitter.com/9hk9wl2MNc
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) December 20, 2019
While Head Coach Dan McFarland was obviously disappointed to lose the game, he felt the performances of some of his younger players was certainly one of the more pleasing aspects of the night.
“We had four new caps tonight and Dave (O’Connor) getting his first start, all five of them showed up well and had a good impact on the game so from that point of view, there’s definitely progress.
“It’s terrific for them and it’s great that we had a chance to get those guys on the pitch. You want them to give it everything and not worry about making mistakes. They can’t play scared and I don’t think they did.
“Not so long ago, Ethan was playing in a Schools’ Cup final and today he’s marking Rob Kearney and he certainly plays without fear, he showed some great touches. He was with us in pre-season and played in the friendly against Glasgow. He was excellent that day, he scored a try and set up another. He’s a good fella, focused, has good footwork and a bit of pace about him, so he deserved his shot.”