Connacht’s Diarmuid Kilgallen: ‘No one has an absolute right to the jersey... every jersey you get is earned’

The 23-year-old from Kildare is making big strides this season, and adding to the side’s strength in depth - even in the high altitudes of Pretoria against the Bulls

There weren’t too many positive highlights from Connacht’s testing day in the Highveld at Loftus Versfeld last Saturday, but Diarmuid Kilgallen’s fine finish after Cathal Forde’s latest classy intervention when streaming on to David Hawkshaw’s pass was probably the pick of them.

This was Kilgallen’s fourth try of the season, which takes his tally to 11 in just 20 appearances for Connacht over the last three seasons. It’s an impressive strike rate, higher even than that of Mack Hansen, which is all the more impressive considering Kilgallen has had 13 starts and seven appearances off the bench.

Not that he sees himself vying with Hansen, and indeed with the latter set to return for Saturday night’s sell-out against Leinster at the Sportsground, all the signs are that the pair of them will occupy the two wing positions. Nor is the 23-year-old claiming any bragging rights over Hansen.

“You’re always going to be chasing a starting berth, that’s what we’re here to do, to play rugby. I’m not looking at tries per game ratio or anything like that. There’s a lot to learn from Mack, as we’ve seen on the international stage from him.

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“So, if I can learn as much as I can from him and push him at the same time, we’re all in a good spot then. For me, it’s more about focusing on myself and getting to a level where I want to be.”

Not the least impressive feature of Kilgallen’s finish was how he kept his legs off the ground as the Bulls’ right winger Sebastian de Klerk attempted to tackle him into touch.

“I think that’s pretty natural in that moment. There’s not too much thinking, it’s more relying on instinct there, trying to stay in. It’s instinct more than anything.”

Kilgallen played at full-back in his school days at Roscrea, and has played a little in midfield, but he’s happiest on either wing. He’s also another professional rugby player who hails from Eadestown in Kildare, GAA territory near Punchestown racecourse, following in the path of Tadhg Beirne, Jimmy O’Brien and Rowan Osborne, who sadly had to retire due to concussion issues at the end to the 2022-23 season.

“If you’ve been in Eadestown you’d know it’s a very small parish. I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on, to be honest, but it’s class that we’re living in such close proximity and for us all to be playing at interprovincial level and for the lads [Beirne and O’Brien] to be playing at international level.”

Now it seems to be his turn to make strides. A big, strong, quick winger and a very sharp finisher, Kilgallen has improved his defence this season and, on foot of being afforded more game time, is flourishing.

Despite Santiago Cordero’s cruel injury in preseason, Kilgallen’s emergence is evidence of Connacht’s improved strength in depth. As well as Hansen and Kilgallen, last year’s Men’s Sevens player of the year Andrew Smith (who has been ruled out this week with a shoulder injury), the rejuvenated Tiernan O’Halloran and John Porch have all featured in the back three this season.

“No one has an absolute right to the jersey because that competition is so strong,” says Kilgallen, a former Irish under-20s winger who has come through the Connacht academy. “So, we all know that if you want to play you have to be on your game.”

“I don’t think it’s anybody’s jersey to lose. Every jersey you get is earned. It’s hugely performance-based. You want to play well and you need to play well to stay in the jersey.”

It’s a nice blend of experience and youthful promise, with the 32-year-old O’Halloran providing some guidance at full-back in starting Connacht’s last five games in a row.

“Tiernan at the back is a huge voice, really influential back there, and I’m still learning a lot from him. I learned a lot in my academy days and I’m still learning from him. He’s been really solid at the back and he’s always great to have back there. A lot of experience.”

By his own admission, Kilgallen has plenty more room for improvement. “I’m not the finished article, I know that. There’s a lot of growth left in my game and that’s what I’m chasing.

“Everything here is geared towards getting better as an individual, and then you come together and it’s about getting better as a team. I suppose any team will say that, but improvements gets results, and results is what you’re after.”

Saturday’s marquee game against Leinster is Connacht’s first home game in four weeks, with a six-day turnaround before facing Bordeaux Bègles at the Sportsground after an exacting schedule on the road – from a freezing night in Edinburgh to warm mid-20s in Durban and on to altitude in Pretoria before returning from a long-haul flight to Galway on Monday for a winter’s night on Saturday.

“Everything we do in terms of travel is tailored towards getting everything right as soon as we can. We’re not talking about fatigue. It’s not on the agenda for us. We’re professional athletes. In the world of sport you travel, you play matches back to back to back. It’s an 11-week block, we’re used to this.”