“Someone like Mike Lowry is a very experienced head on young shoulders. He’s going to be a phenomenal player, obviously and I think he’s going to be a leader on the back of that as well.”
Ulster prop Eric O’Sullivan didn’t take long to respond when asked who he believes could step up as a leader for the northern province in the coming seasons.
Dan McFarland’s side have seen a number of their experienced players retiring in recent years and this season, they lost Chris Henry to retirement while Darren Cave and Rory Best will play their last games in a white jersey in the coming weeks.
It may come as a surprise to many to see that the 20-year-old Lowry, who is only in his first season of senior rugby, was nominated by his colleague to help fill this void in the coming seasons.
However, when speaking to the outhalf-cum-fullback, he doesn’t come across as nervous or unsure of himself like many young, inexperienced players in his position often do when dealing with the media.
Lowry takes his time – he’s cool.
He weighs up the question and delivers an answer full of conviction.
“I think the experienced guys have been great but I think, as you said, we will have to take more responsibility,” Lowry said at Kingspan’s Ulster Rugby media event this week.
“There’s obviously the aspect that we have to step up and take our opportunities and it’s great but I think we now have that experience that we’ve played in big games now and I think that will help us. It’s an opportunity but it could also be a tough thing to take on so young but there’s not going to be that many experienced boys around next year, older heads.
“Even the likes of Jacob [Stockdale] being so young but playing against the All Blacks, scoring the winning try, you know, players like that, they’ve done it all already pretty much apart from World Cups obviously. I think we will be in a good place come next year.”
Lowry has had a season disrupted by injury which has limited his game time to just 14 appearances but he played a key role in helping his side to the last eight of the Heineken Champions Cup.
The youngster hasn’t looked out of place one bit among the professional ranks and he was rewarded for his performances with a full-time professional contract two months ago.
Lowry puts the apparent ease at which he has transitioned to the senior game down to the time he spent training with the experienced members of the squad before making his debut at the end of September.
“I think if you’re in that environment and when you’re training so much with the seniors, you adapt quite quickly through training. You know that it’s going to be intense. Yes, 100% from going into Academy training and straight into senior training, the jump in intensity was great.
“Again, it takes you a couple of weeks to get into it. I didn’t start my first game until October so I still had that couple of months where I was training around the senior team and I knew what it was like. We trained a lot, worked on physicality and fitness a lot, it was fine. It was more just that game experience that was left to come.”
That first encounter with “game experience” was rough, to say the least, he made his senior debut in the PRO14 against Munster at Thomond Park at the end of September, a match where his side were on the wrong end of a 64-7 drubbing.
Lowry admits that the result “hurt” a lot but it also provided the catalyst for his team to go and secure knockout rugby in the PRO14 and Champions Cup.
“100%. From that Munster game, we had a team meeting after and we said, ‘that’s the end of that and that’s the turning point’. It did hurt a lot. There were a lot of older, senior boys playing that game who had never experienced that and obviously, that was some of the young boys’ first experience with real professional rugby.
“Their [Munster] side that day was stacked with internationals and that’s the level where we needed to be. Dan [McFarland] said that was the turning point and we’ve haven’t really gone back to that since. We’ve had reminders of it but I think that’s a good sort of point to where we’ve got to now but there’s still plenty to work on.”
One of those games which may have provided a “reminder” was Ulster’s loss to Racing 92 in Paris, a game in which they were outclassed.
Although the main reason why people remember that game was due to the actions of Simon Zebo who waved at Lowry when touching down for a try.
Lowry was caught up in a social media storm and he describes the reaction to the incident as “absolutely crazy”.
“At the time I actually thought nothing of it until he [Zebo] came over and apologised. I just said ‘don’t worry about it’. I wasn’t offended whatsoever. I was just so involved in the game of rugby that you don’t really think about it and what can happen after.
“Back in the changing room after, I just looked at my phone and it was absolutely mad, absolutely crazy. It wasn’t really expected but those moments, again, playing at the arena was unbelievable, even meeting the likes of Simon Zebo…growing up, watching him play for Ireland, fabulous breaks and tries and all sorts.
“It’s one of those things, it’s kind of weird when you look back on it but at the time you just think, it’s just a game of rugby, this is not a rugby player. It was nice to hear from him after, he’s a good lad. He apologised as well.”
The wins, the losses and the social media storms, Lowry has experienced it all this season.
It will certainly stand to him for what lies ahead.
Jordi Murphy, Eric O’Sullivan and Michael Lowry were speaking at Kingspan’s Ulster Rugby media event in Dublin today, April 24th, ahead of Saturday’s tie with Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium.
Kingspan delivers high efficiency, low carbon building solutions and is the naming rights partner and front of jersey sponsor of Ulster Rugby.