When Mike Lowry was selected for his first Ulster start, it’s fair to assume there were a few raised eyebrows among the general population.
While the youngster had been a school rugby star, leading RBAI to a trio of Schools Cup successes and claiming the starting 10 shirt when he was still only a fifth year, on the professional stage, an unknown quantity remained.
His senior debut had come as a substitute just two weeks earlier against Munster in an atmosphere no less daunting than Thomond Park. It’s not that the night, where her pal and classmate James Hume also debuted, went badly on a personal level. Indeed, Lowry showed his defensive qualities by making a try tackle in the corner on Alex Wooton.
The wider issue was that all the tackling made ensured Munster didn’t beat 70. The 64-7 defeat at Limerick was a bitter pill to swallow for all involved, a record defeat for the northern province destined to be written down in the record. books for all the wrong reasons.
So to see Lowry start two weeks later against Leicester Tigers in the Champions Cup was a huge show of confidence in Dan McFarland’s player in the manager’s early months at Ravenhill. Especially since it would be a then unknown 15 jersey.
His Ulster team-mate Marcus Rea recently marveled at Lowry’s professionalism – “Mikey isn’t told to do anything or forced to do anything, but he always does it without no hesitation,” said the flanker – so it should come as no surprise that he had spent days and weeks before dotting the team’s defensive coach and former star full-back Jared Payne, for job tips and tricks of the trade.
“Obviously Leicester were going to come after me,” he said later. “I knew from the start it was inevitable. If we were in that situation, a guy making his first full-back start, that would be the first thing we would do.
Yet knowing what was going on against the English giants and dealing with it in practice are two very different propositions.
Leicester seized the first opportunity to test the newcomer with scrum-half Ben Youngs showing every ounce of his experience as he aimed a straight kick to the throat of Lowry.
Everything the then 20-year-old, who had spent the morning trying to unwind with a few Fifa games, must have feared from that first move came true. He kicked the ball in and awarded a scrum to the usually formidable Tigers group.
All observers assumed that the day was going to be long. What followed was a reversal of the expected script.
Again Leicester kicked towards him but, with the important Jordan Olowofela charging towards him, he leapt into the air to claim the ball and win Ulster’s free kick.
The crowd roared in a mixture of appreciation and surprise and the Dromore man has defied expectations since then on a journey that will see him make his Ireland debut against Italy in tomorrow’s Six Nations clash at Aviva Stadium.
Listed at 5ft 7in and 80kg, there is perhaps a natural fascination with his size, especially as the game evolves to a level of physique unforeseen a generation ago. The hits in Ireland’s loss to France two weeks ago were breathtaking.
Yet, like Cheslin Kolbe or Faf de Klerk, to consider Lowry the rugby player as nothing more than a throwback to a bygone era is reductive. The game remains space, finding it and exploiting it. Few people have been better at it this season than Lowry – in fact, his former Academy coach, Willie Anderson, never doubted the player’s willpower.
“Michael Lowry, I call him the total warrior,” he said. “He has the ability for his size to play well above what people expect of him. He’s such a talented player and such a brave person. He really is his own man and he is a very good person.
When this campaign began, amid rumors he could focus on the semi-finals again, the latest Irish debutant’s minutes were somewhat scarce – 158 of them from five outings, all as a substitute.
But with Jacob Stockdale and Will Addison badly injured in that first block of games, the team was best served by a run at the back and Lowry has excelled ever since, especially in Europe.
After three tries in four pool games, Lowry leads the competition in yards made, clean breaks and defenders beaten. His man of the match display against the Saints at Northampton came just days before Farrell was to name his side for the Championship.
While the leap from even the upper echelons of club play to the Six Nations remains important, just as he showed that day against Leicester, Lowry has shown he has the quality and temperament to handle such leaps.
For his red day alongside Hume, who will wear the 23 shirt again after his first taste of the Six Nations in the first round against Wales, will no doubt make a special occasion all the more memorable.
And a day of pride also for their school coach Dan Soper, now in charge of the attack in Ulster.
“Did I see it when they were kids at school?” he reflected when the pair were called up to the team.
“They always stood out, didn’t they? They always stood out as a tiny bit ahead of the pack. They always had that aspiration in the back of their minds, and I guess I also thought they would have that chance.
“There’s no doubt that to reach the level they’ve reached – and even still to play in Ulster schools, Irish schools – you have to have that bit of raw talent. But that alone doesn’t allow you to get into an international rugby team.
“What’s great is that they’re both really coachable and want to learn, like a lot of the guys on the team.
“Michael and James have always had that and they’ve certainly become great young men with great potential that we’re starting to see at the top level.”
A green jersey in the Six Nations. The level is not much higher than that.