Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy are very good friends and long-time team-mates for Dungannon and Ulster, and together they will make the step-up with the Ireland XV against Fiji on Saturday.
Paddy Jackson has shown his mettle this season, recovering from a forgettable Heineken Cup display to make the Ulster number 10 jersey his own.
The 20-year-old out-half has been to the fore during the province’s nine-match winning streak, kicking 81 points in eight appearances including a 21-point salvo against Castres Olympique.
The fleet-footed Craig Gilroy, 21, has been not far behind him in his influence, running in two tries so far this term and providing a number of assists – most memorably setting up a cracking try for Jared Payne against Edinburgh earlier this month.
Both Jackson and Gilroy were part of Methodist College’s Ulster Schools Senior Cup winning team of 2009, and they combined two years later for the Ireland Under-20s.
The Belfast-born duo and their Ulster colleague Luke Marshall are the three uncapped players in the Irish starting line-up for the GUINNESS Series match against Fiji.
Giving his thoughts ahead of the game, Jackson said: “I’m very honoured to be pulling on the Irish jersey and it’s very good to have a few of the Ulster lads that I’ve grown up with – Craig and Lukey – who I’ve known for many years now. So it’s going to be a great day.
“It shows the strength of Ulster at the moment, that we’re feeding through into the national set-up, but it’s not about Ulster this weekend – it’s about Ireland, it’s all about the team coming together on the day so, it should be a special day.”
For the non-cap international, Jackson will join Conor Murray at half-back and he is looking forward to playing with the tall Munster scrum half.
“We’ve only been training together the past couple of days but I’ve found it very good playing with Conor and we’ve been gelling well together.
“He’s obviously young but he’s got a lot of experience so it should help me a lot on the day.”
Gilroy, last season’s Ulster Young Player of the Year, has been on the Ireland radar for a little while longer than Jackson – the speedy winger touched down twice and set up another try in the Ireland XV’s loss to the Barbarians last May.
That was a few weeks after his superb try in Ulster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Munster at Thomond Park, the venue for Saturday’s encounter with the Fijians.
Gilroy’s superb solo score won him many admirers that day and was a deserving winner of the IRUPA Try of the Year award for the 2011/12 campaign.
Looking forward to pulling on the green jersey in Limerick, he said: “It’s a bit surreal (being in the national squad). You just have to make sure that you don’t get star-struck by it all or let it get to you.
“It’s something we’ve been forging towards since we started playing rugby, I suppose. Now that we’ve gotten that opportunity we want to make the most of it and not just sit back.
“From a personal perspective with a lot of Ulster players involved, it’s good playing with guys who you’ve been playing with for a long time.
“It helps my game and their game, because we just know how to play rugby together and we can work off one another.”
Gilroy is only ten months older than Jackson but with the benefit of 52 Ulster senior caps behind him, he can see that that the ex-Ireland Under-20 captain’s game is improving at quite a rate.
“Paddy just keeps getting better and better. He keeps learning and is always willing to learn. You’d see him chatting away with Jonny Sexton and he has learned loads from him,” he commented.
“I’ve actually seen an improvement in him already, just in the space of a few months since the start of the season and then even again in the short number of weeks that he’s been in camp with Ireland.
“That’s great for him because he’s learning loads. I think he’s a fantastic player at the minute, but he’s still not even halfway where he can be.
“He doesn’t usually suffer from the spotlight. Obviously, in the (Heineken Cup) final last year, it might have gotten to him a wee bit.
“But he’s bounced back straight away from that and learned a lot from it. He’s the kind of player who doesn’t feel pressure as much as other players would.”
The same could be said for Gilroy who is hoping to transfer his slick finishing skills – he has averaged a try every three games for Ulster – onto the international stage.
“Hopefully, things go well and we can continue to pull on the green jersey as much as possible,” he added.
Whether the pair can force their way into the squad for next week’s Series finale against Argentina remains to be seen, but call-ups for the Ireland Wolfhounds’ January clash with England Saxons seem likely if they continue to impress.