Ulster Rugby LAD meets… Mike Lowry
Despite standing at just 5 ft 7 in, Mike Lowry is considered by many to be Ulster’s ‘next big thing’.
Lowry’s sublime technique and confidence have allowed him to excel since his introduction into the senior team.
It was a baptism of fire, coming off the bench late into a difficult match against Munster at Thomond Park.
However, since then, Lowry has gone from strength to strength, proving himself to be a dynamic and creative attacking outlet who never shirks a tackle and is solid under the high ball.
Here, he discusses how his granny got him into rugby, his partnership with James Hume since school days and his hopes and expectations for Ulster in the future.
Mike, great to speak to you. Have you had a good summer?
I’ve had a great summer thanks. I was away in Budapest with a few of the lads and then went to Croatia with my girlfriend which was lovely.
Of course, I’ve been working hard since pre-season started. It’s great having time off in the summer – you need a bit of a physical and mental break after a long season.
I’ve really enjoyed being back training with the guys though. You do begin to miss it when you’re away!
I’ll start at the beginning with the question I ask everyone: Who or what made you passionate about rugby?
It was actually my granny who got me into rugby! She was the first one who put it on the TV.
She liked watching the haka. I was watching it and I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I thought it was cool!
I watched the game and really enjoyed it. I loved the way the All Blacks played – they have an aura about them.
I started playing when my mate from Dromore Primary School went along to the local club. I went with him and absolutely loved it. Since then, my mum has watched every game I’ve played and really supported and encouraged me along the way.
You went to Inst – a school which puts a lot of emphasis on rugby. What was your experience of playing rugby at school and at what stage did you start to take it really seriously?
We had a pretty good year for rugby at school. In second year, we won the Methody tournament and that’s when I think we realized we could potentially do quite well and go on to win things.
I probably started to take it really seriously when I got involved with the Ulster set-up. There was a chance of the Ulster Academy when I was in sixth year.
At a big rugby school like Inst there is quite a professional set-up. The School’s Cup is a really big thing and we had a really competitive environment that made us want to do well and play at the highest level we were capable of.
A lot of the guys I played with at school still play at some level. We all absolutely loved it. I played with James Hume at school from the age of 11. We played at 12 and 13 initially and then in senior school we formed the 10-12 combination. It’s safe to say I know him inside-out by now!
In my medallion year Dan Soper came in to coach the first XV. I was lucky enough to have him as coach for the next three years at school.
Dan Soper is now the skills coach at Ulster. What does skills coaching actually involve?
Dan does a lot of work to keep players sharp – hand-eye co-ordination stuff and things to keep your brain ticking over. He keeps it fun and integrates a bit of competition – playing four-square, juggling and other things.
He works on more specific skills as well – he will help hookers with their throwing, scrum-halves with passing drills and with the back three he’ll do a lot of drills to help us contest for high-balls. He is a huge help – he’ll chip in with bits and pieces of knowledge and help you add wee things to your game.
He has his own twist on things which helps to keep it really fresh. You’re not doing the same things over and over – he adds variety and mixes it up to keep things interesting.
You primarily played at 10 at school and have been converted into a full-back at Ulster. What’s your favoured position? Where do you see yourself ending up?
That’s a very tricky question!
At the minute I think it’s about getting game time- that’s the priority and that will be the biggest thing that will help me develop going forward.
I will eventually have to pick one but at the minute I like the fact I can play both. They both offer different things.
Playing at 10, I love being in the front line of defence which I know is quite weird for a guy of my size but really enjoy tackling!
But then again, playing at full-back you get so much more time and space to have a crack when you are running the ball back. You have license to ‘have a go’ when you’re playing at 15.
Both have their advantages and things I really enjoy about them. There’s not one I would pin myself down to as I am still leaning both.
Rugby is a game dominated by massive people, particularly at the highest level. How have you found the transition to senior rugby? Have you had to adapt your game, or have you found that your size works to your advantage as you can offer something different?
You do have to adapt but not too much. A lot of the game is technique and mindset – it’s not all about size.
Yes, being massive might help you when you’re carrying and tackling, but, if you have the right technique and mindset those things can go a long way.
Not being overly big does come with advantages. Even in terms if rucking, you’re closer to the ground and you’re able to get down and over the ball really quickly.
Rugby is a game of all shapes and sizes – I really believe that. I am determined to prove people wrong who say certain players are too small to play at a high level.
I’m told that, back in the day, rugby players used to try and dodge defenders, not run straight into them! Is that something that’s been lost a bit in modern rugby?
Yes, exactly! I think it does work to my advantage to keep a bit of speed and agility. I think you can lose some of that if you get too big.
Your debut was a bit of a baptism of fire, coming on in the infamous record defeat to Munster at Thomond Park at the start of the season. How did you feel about that experience?
Yeah obviously in some ways it wasn’t the ideal scenario to step into. Saying that, when you’re 30-40 points down there’s not as much pressure on you to come on and change the game.
Of course, it was a disappointing day and not a great trip home.
We knew we could do so much better and I think we showed that throughout the season. We got better and better.
In some ways it was good to get a taste of playing in that environment. A couple of weeks later I had my first start in a European game against Leicester.
If I hadn’t had that taster against Munster, I think it would have been more difficult to go straight into the team against Leicester.
There must have been a lot of pressure making your first start in that European opener against Leicester Tigers. How do you get mentally prepared for a game like that?
Before that game against Leicester I was sitting in my house with a few mates watching the European Cup game that was on before ours! I just finished my pasta and chicken and walked out the door to head to the game.
Throughout the week if you train well and there’s a lot of positivity and encouragement it always helps you going into the game.
Of course, there will always be nervousness and excitement going into games. I think that the build-up can be the worst bit. That’s when you think the most about all the different things that could happen. But it’s important to stay focused and visualize what you want to happen.
Once you start the warm-up and the whistle has gone you completely get out of that mind-set and all of the nerves just disappear.
Are you aware of the crowd when you’re playing? Do you think ‘aw crap, if I drop a high ball it’s in front of 15,000 people?’
Yeah, you are aware of the crowd. When you’re playing at home you know the fans are behind you, wanting you to do well.
In that game I did drop the first ball. It wasn’t the end of the world because I knew that if I caught the next one the crowd would be behind me.
You do have it in the back of your head, but you can’t allow it to get in the way and negatively affect your performance. If you make a mistake you just have to dust yourself down and move on.
At school you won the Medallion Shield and then three successive Schools Cups. The Ulster Academy was on the horizon. Everything was going well and then you were sidelined for a long time with a groin injury. It must have been a formative time for you to realize that a potential career in rugby is so fragile?
Yeah it was actually during my last year in school that I had an injury but kept playing so that I could play in the Schools Cup. It was the season after that I was out for a good bit.
It definitely made me realise that there will be set-backs along the road. I think the thing that spurred me on most during that year was players my age were starting to creep into the senior squad and play. That was always somewhere I thought I could be.
During that season I really, really pushed myself to get back and get fit. I knew I wasn’t going to be playing at all that season, but it made me want to play even more as I didn’t want to miss my opportunity.
I missed the under 20s 6 Nations. I hadn’t played all year then I missed out on most of the World Cup. I was called up for the last game which was light at the end of the tunnel.
I was told throughout it that it might be a blessing in disguise. It gave me a physical and mental break from playing rugby non-stop from a young age. It was hard work, but I came back fitter than ever. I have my coaches to thank for helping me get back.
When you come into the senior Ulster squad what is the atmosphere like? Really competitive or is it more supportive and encouraging?
It’s a really positive atmosphere to be in. We’re in such a better place even compared to last year.
I think some guys are starting to realise the potential that this team has. It’s a competitive environment which is great. The guys in the squad drive the standards among each other. The young guys are driving the older guys and vice versa. We have a great mix of youth and experience in the squad. Everyone is looking for ways to get better as a team.
It’s really enjoyable to be part of at the minute. If that’s the way it continues to go, then we’re on an upward curve.
What are your expectations for Ulster for the next couple of seasons?
We want to consistently compete for championships. We’ve all bought into that as a squad and are completely on board with the goals we have set along with Dan and the coaching staff. You don’t play rugby to lose, you play it to win.
I think we’ll be competing for trophies.
From a fan’s perspective, last season was great for Ulster. Even the loss to Leinster in Dublin typified the ‘fight for every inch’ mentality instilled in this squad by Dan McFarland. Ulster seem to once again have an identity which is great to see.
We are really proud of performing for the fans. At Ulster we always get a good turnout and the atmosphere is class. We have a squad of 45 or so guys but to compete for championships it takes the supporters to continue to get behind the team. It’s the support of the whole community of Ulster fans across the province who will be crucial to Ulster’s future success.
Thanks so much Mike and best of luck for the season ahead.
When you think of the word ‘successful’ who is the first person you think of and why?
Cristiano Ronaldo. He knows how to be successful!
Batman – The Dark Knight.
Any hobbies or obsession you explore in your free time?
Football and, believe it or not, basketball!